Thursday, October 23, 2008


There’s a lot of promise that comes with “Blindness,” the new film based on the richly metaphorical, Nobel Prize-winning book by José Saramago. Not only is it based on a great novel, it’s got a killer cast and it’s directed by Fernando Meirelles, director of “City of God,” a film that comes abut close as one possibly can to being an amalgamation of Martin Scorsese’s best work without being plagiaristic. Unfortunately, some books are better left alone.

The story takes place in three parts: the first is the outbreak of the blindness plague and the initial quarantining, the seconds covers the breakdown of the containment camp, and the third follows a band of survivors who escape the camp. Leading them are an optometrist (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore); the latter seemingly the only one unaffected by the epidemic. They set up their containment ward to be a solid, peaceful fraternity. You’ve got everyone: a kid, a kindly ex-prostitute, a thief, and Asian couple, and a wise old man who not so wisely continues to wear an eye patch.

As the soldiers guarding the quarantine zone become more and more afraid of infection, they care less and less about the inhabitants, leaving them to ration their own food and chores, even take care of disposal of bodies. Enter the leader of another ward, the self-proclaimed “King of Ward 3,” who first forces other wards to pay for food (as if money or jewelry has any value anymore), then demands women after the tribute runs out. He has miraculously gotten his hands on a gun, though where or how remains as much a mystery as the pathology of the blindness. This eventually sparks a war, which of course the good guys win because they have a leader who can see the others frantically waving pipes and rods, hoping to collide with someone.

Little is done right in this film. The characters are all absurdly one note: the good guys in Ward 1 all stay good, and submit to the demands of the “King” in order to feed each other. Meanwhile, everyone in Ward 3 is entirely evil; they savage the women sent to them in glee, and not one for a moment pauses to consider the abject horror of their choices. Moore does all she can with the role, but no one has a background or any two-dimensionality, so there’s nothing to work with. The book can afford to be almost entirely metaphorical because, well, it’s a book. Books can do as they damn well please; that’s what makes them superior. A film, on the other hand, has to have something driving it, otherwise it just meanders.

The biggest surprise is the directorial ineptitude on display. Meirelles established himself as one of the most gifted new directors with “City of God,” and, from what I hear, he did a bang-up job with “The Constant Gardener” as well. But here he tires to recapture the alternately gritty and glamorous style of his masterpiece. Much of the film is dark, taking place in the shadow of shadows, making it impossible to piece together a scene. He shows us horrors, but these horrors do not help us understand the story better; they just disgust. Too often the screen changes into a bright, milky white, not only to visualize the “white blindness” but seemingly because Meirelles feels like it. This effect drifts in and out of thematic relevance to the point that it undermines the times it's used correctly.

Recently groups of blind people protested that the film (and the book, I assume) painted a negative portrait of the blind. I won’t say that they fail to see the point because that would be crass, but there is a definite misunderstanding; blindness is used only as a macguffin to bring out panic and base instincts in these people. To be fair, though, the allegory was a little thin as a book, and the lack of subtlety on display here could offend just about anyone. If you want to see a good film about a mysterious, unexplained disease that brings about a terrifying image of what man can regress to, watch “Children of Men.” Or stick to the novel.

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