Regular reader Michael Sloan, known around these parts as simply ‘rot’ chimes in with an excellent take on City of God director Fernando Meirelles‘ latest film, Blindness. Now this screening (which I now strongly regret missing) was a rough cut of the Brazilian/Japanese/Canadian co-production, so things may be tweaked around before the August 2008 release date. Read on for Mike’s thoughts and summary of this fascinating science-fiction drama:
Last night I had the opportunity to catch a first glimpse of Fernando Meirelles‘ rough cut of Blindness, a film adapted from the best-selling novel of Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author José Saramago, and starring such heavies as Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover. It is a film whose pedigree clearly precedes it, a perfect storm of talent that bodes perilously high expectations. Having not read the book, my interest was quelled by the high-concept premise: imagine a dystopic scenario where all of a sudden and quite inexplicably the people around you start going blind and, like a virus, this blindness spreads in every direction leaving a society crippled and in frantic want of quarantine; yet you keep your vision and bear witness to the theatre of the absurd that occurs in the absence of that so vital sense in others.
The premise is rich in philosophical implications: how much of our identity, moral code, and civil decency is dependent upon the reaffirmed belief that there is a visible world in which we all inhabit? When the familiar fabric of that world is denied the characters which populate Blindness, a reorientation takes place both individually and socially whereby the vestiges of the old world are undone and, as is poignantly noted in voice-over, people assume a kind of invisibility in their blindness, regressing to a supreme egoism and undaunted exhibitionism they would not have participated in otherwise. Julianne Moore plays a doctor’s wife, a stowaway to the quarantine where her husband has been sent, and the only person untouched by the disease. Through her eyes we watch the escalation of violence that manifests as the quarantined victims come to terms with what entirely is lost along with their sight.
Cinema is fond of stories about moral depravity in the face of exceptional situations where the everyday external checks of society no longer apply, from The Invisible Man, Lord of the Flies, to the recent, Das Experiment. A large segment of Blindness operates within this grand tradition as the newly blind come to recognize the absence of a ‘moral gaze’ in the quarantine, and bit by bit relinquish their inhibitions to the whims and fantasies of their minds. Meirelles, to his credit, does not shy away from the depths of human cruelty this story warrants. Prolonged sequences (yes plural) of rape had many women walking out of my theater. I am worried that these harsher aspects of the film will end up on the cutting room floor after the focus groups get their say, and while I felt there were some pacing issues throughout the film, the ugliness that Meirelles lingers on in this cut of the film feels entirely justified and makes the question of the innate worth of ‘dignity’ that much more profound. The moral ambiguity of the film, not merely of character actions, is pivotal for my recommendation of it. There is something sublime in the manner in which the story temporarily veers out of control removing from the equation, at least momentarily, the trite notions of good and evil. I contrast this sort of excess with a film familiar in concept, Das Experiment, where although both films deal with people regressing within confines that film never lets you forget who is the hero, and with Blindness, when it goes dark all bets are off and I applaud it for this lack of restraint.
Just as valuable is the manner in which the story claws back out of the inferno of its Dantesque journey to some beatific end point. The most poignant moments of the film occur in this last wayward struggle for healing among the survivors, and it constantly surprises me how well it achieves this. The subplot of Danny Glover‘s character, a character who intermittently provides the voice-over throughout the film, and who has very little to do throughout the bulk of the quarantine scenes, becomes the real saving grace for me, and gets to the very heart of the spiritual aspects of the story that unfortunately are not as well conveyed through Julianne Moore‘s story arc. I imagine Danny Glover‘s character had a much more prominent role in the novel, and I was left wanting to have so much more time to follow his arc, at the expense of much of the arcs dealing with the child, Don McKellar‘s thief, or the Asian couple which fell entirely flat. It is worth noting also that Blindness is a parable, a purpose culminating beautifully in the final minutes of the film (at least that’s my interpretation). As per the novel, the city and the characters remain nameless, and even the quarantine and those imposing it are largely overlooked in the storytelling; the point is always the struggle and what it alludes to.
Now my complaints. It is a film full of moments of greatness, and is a rather subdued effort considering it is from the director of City of God, yet not subdued enough to really soak up the existential subtleties bereft of the subject matter. Meirelles endlessly tries to convey cinematically the experience of blindness and while in several of these instances this pays off there is a tipping point where I felt the director was far too concerned with embodying the sensory experience and far less concerned with studying human frailty. The quarantine scenes were highly reminiscent both in subject matter and in setting of Michael Haneke‘s Time of the Wolf, except Haneke‘s restraint with the camera and his patient eye for benign-yet-telling observations of human behaviour were noticeably absent. The voice-overs, at times ponderous, at times obtrusive, always felt like the novel wedged inside the film to do the work of the spiritual theme that the story couldn’t be bothered to pursue.
But in the end I just do not care enough about these flaws, and as a subject for review, Blindness is hard to categorize. It is a film I at no one point could concede to genuinely enjoying yet as each moment led to the next and as the revelations of the final minutes seeped into me I came to reinterpret what had come before, discovering a story delightfully cleverer and more nuanced than I had originally given it credit for. It is a bonafide story which unfolds in a way that I had not anticipated and I was won over by the roundabout insight it afforded. The execution is sometimes clumsy and story threads occasionally fumble about but the sheer determination to go further with the premise, pushing beyond the barricades of mediocrity and aspire for at least some of the weightiness of the source material, that kind of relentlessness ultimately made it a success. Certain credit is perhaps owed the screenwriter Don McKellar for not surrendering entirely the heart of the story to the more obvious gimmicky genre tropes that could have been capitalized upon. While still a compromised work, Blindness puts the work in to make you feel. In the current cut it feels like a great film shone through the wrong lens, but until Haneke does a remake, this will suffice.