Sunday, September 07, 2008


(2008, Canada/Brazil/Japan)
Written by Don McKellar
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, Alice Braga, Don McKellar, Danny Glover, Yuseke Iseya, Mitchell Nye, Maury Chaykin

Fernando Meirelles' Blindness gradually lacquers its images with a bleached, milky white sheen that suggests a forgotten William Castle process--"Glaucom-A-Rama"? (and a complimentary eye-exam in Coward's Corner?) It's suitable that this allegorical saga of a planet-wide plague of "white sickness" (a sudden loss of vision, but at no risk to one's capacity to brood) eventually becomes hard to discern visually--the pics match the dramatics, adapted from Jose Saramago's much-lauded novel, which have an awful lot to say about The Human Condition, but at the expense of any real sense.

Of course I'm being cheekily cynical here--but then I'm always weary of those important sure-this-has-a-sci-fi-plot-but-it's-not-a-Hollywood-movie efforts that co-opt genre fiction's trappings but feel they're taking the high road by withholding the pulpy pleasures (the powerful Children Of Men excepted, in which its doom-laden drudgery was infused with humanity and urgency, but does the world really need another No Blade Of Grass or The Quiet Earth?). And the history of literary adaptations sporting international ensembles is a spotty one: go back to At Play In The Fields Of The Lord, right on up to Love In The Time Of Cholera. Maybe it's a conspiracy from the beleagured publishing industry, because if you leave this thing utterly stymied, the obvious answer is it's because you didn't read the book. Well, mission accomplished: I'm kinda-sorta of tempted to tackle the novel now, because I found the film's premise intriguing enough to want to try and figure out just what the hell this was all about.

Never have I pined so hard for Rod Serling to step into the final shot, take a drag, and beat me over the head, and tell me what I'm supposed to be feeling.

While hardly the Cimino-esque disaster you might think it is given the Cannes fall-out, the film, while ambitious, is damn frustrating, but not due to a deliberately obtuse/David Lynch-y/Lost Highway surrealist vib--rather, it's maddeningly inert, and illogical, with burdened with random character motivations (from characters who are never named). Although based on a Portugese novel, it's very Canadian (relax, I'm born n' bred here, and have worked on many-a-homegrown production), with its multicultural cast, existential themes, chatty exposition, careful avoidance of American-style spectacle. Think Atom Egoyan's Day Of The Triffids (without the walking plants, obviously), and the scene will be set...

It begins innocuously enough with a traffic jam in an unnamed city. A young Japanese man (Iseya) has suddenly lost his sight while at the wheel. He insists on no hospitals, so a good samaritan drives him home--and then steals his car. The young man's wife comes home, and convinces him to see an eye doctor. The opthamologist (Ruffalo) can find nothing wrong physically--even thought the man describes the condition vividly as a blinding blanket of whiteness--and concludes it's a psychological condition. Until he himself succumbs to the syndrome the next morning, and concludes it's an ocular virus contagious by touch. Soon, more and more citizens become afflicted--the car thief (McKellar), a prostitute (Braga, far less a survivalist than she was in I Am Legend)-- prompting a nation-wide quarantine. When the government disease control squad comes for the the opthamologist, his wife (Moore) fakes the condition so she can go off with him. They're interned in an abandoned mental hospital along with the young Japanese man, the thief, the prostitute, a young boy (Nye), a gentle old man (Glover),and others.

Seemingly forgotten by the outside world, save for periodic food and medicine drops, the inmates learn to navigate around the cramped, filthy interior thanks to Moore's aide. But in a neighbouring ward, a young hothead (Bernal), declares himself kingpin and assumes control of food distribution, which he enforces with random shots of his pistol. Payment is at first taken in the form of cash and jewelry, but when the offerings run out, he demands that the women of Moore's ward provide sexual services or he'll let everyone starve. After days with sustenance, the women comply. But after a single night of brutal rape, Moore leads a revolt and engineers a fiery escape from the hospital, only to find the outside world a horrifying wasteland of squalor and starvation...until...

...that would be telling. Suffice to say that Don McKellar's adaptation seems intent on cramming in too much of the source material--to the point of having to shoehorn in a narrator (Danny Glover's character) at the halfway point. For those who have seen McKellar's charming end-of-the-world elegy Last Night, Blindness is a nihilistic 180 on a similiar scenario. But while attempting to translate the novel's symbolism visually to the screen is a noble pursuit, the literalness of the motion picture medium works against Saramongo's high-falutin' ideas and interior passages. Because everyone else in the cast is so enfeebled, Moore becomes our sighted surrogate, but her characterization is illustrative of the film's many problems.

Moore defies authorities to stand by her man and joins Ruffalo in the asylum, but once there, shrinks away the moment Bernel and his crony Chaykin take control of the ward and food supply. Somehow, this diminutive little cur has smuggled in a handgun and a seemingly endless supply of ammo, which is enough to keep the inmates at bay (a stray bullet is deadly, sure, but his aim is sloppy, so why not chance it?). Moore could've snatched the weapon from this fool's hand in about ten seconds, and yet, she shrinks away and lets him starve the others and rape the women as payment. It takes a woman's death by beating to prompt her to action, but why allow it to happen at all, when she's had the upper hand from the very beginning? Obviously, it's in service of another grand statement, but the film lost me at this point. What's more---all the adult males are either blubbering idiots, government cronies, sage-like patricians, thieves, or violent rapists. So why betray the female empowerment subtext by having Moore suddenly degenerate into a shrinking wallflower, just to serve the plot?

I'm not sure how the blind will react to being portrayed as completely helpless--reduced to clawing at window glass and pawing unopened canned goods like George Romero zombies when not being fed on by wild dogs--surely in this age where so much of the essentials of urban life are carried out through automation, international business is conducted via desktop terminals, and technology developed to assist the visually impaired and the physically challenged (sight restoration thru stem cells having recently been successful in some candidates) there would be many who could continue to live their lives comfortably and even assist in the transition for the newly-afflicted. Had the story been a generation removed from the epidemic, we might buy the fact that the details and the "whys" have been forgotten in favour of immediate, day-to-day survival. But the time-frame here--presumably only a few months--is so compressed that the complete breakdown of society is absurdly quick, leaving ciphers to scavenge where only nameless ciphers once lived before.

While Blindness is handsomely shot by César Charlone (who also photographed Meirelles' far-superior City Of God), I was underwhelmed by the film's non-milky visuals, possibly because after last year's I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later, and even Wall-E, I've finally become numb to derelict megalopolises, esp. when they seem no worse off after the apocalypse than they did before.

©Robert J. Lewis