SAO PAULO, Brazil – Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore are traipsing through a trash-strewn urban wasteland, scavenging for salvation. All around them, dozens of pitiful human beings dressed in filthy, mismatched clothes grope their way past wrecked cars and graffiti-splattered highway ramps, like dancers in some grotesque ballet of the damned.
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It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s impossible to avert your eyes – which is exactly the point. Director Fernando Meirelles and his camera crew are gearing up to shoot another take of “Blindness,” a feature film based on the harrowing 1995 parable about an unnamed city stricken with a plague of sightlessness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago.
Like nearly everyone in the film, Ruffalo’s character, an ophthalmologist known simply as “the Doctor,” is afflicted with a terrifying malady in which the eyes appear normal but are coated with a milky whiteness that blocks out vision.
The only person immune is Moore’s character, the doctor’s heroic, steadfast wife. As the story gathers speed, she must guide her husband and a small group of fellow sufferers (played by Danny Glover, Alice Braga and others) through a perilous obstacle course, in a society where order has collapsed, and humans are reduced to living like animals.
Critics heralded Saramago’s novel as a brutal but compelling allegory of the 20th century’s house of horrors: the Holocaust, the stigmatization of AIDS patients, the ominous encroachment of Big Brother. First published amid the fin de siecle fixation on end-times scenarios, it anticipated pop culture’s ongoing obsession with apocalyptic story lines: “I Am Legend,” “28 Weeks Later,” the Christian/sci-fi “Left Behind” books, Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.”
If the film’s new setting visually echoes post-Katrina New Orleans or a sub-Saharan refugee camp, that reflects the director’s view that the message of “Blindness” is becoming more timely every day.
“Because now, especially with the environment, we’re really destroying the planet, but we keep going, keep selling, keep burning. It’s like we can’t see,” says Meirelles, whose 2002 international breakout hit “City of God,” about Brazilian youth gangs, stamped him as a skilled action auteur with a social conscience to match.
Miramax has scheduled the English-language film for an August release. In book and film, blindness isn’t only a physical condition but a metaphor for human nature’s darker side: prejudice, selfishness, violence, and willful indifference.
“Sometimes we read about tribal wars in some countries in Africa and how terrible they are and how aggressive and how violent. And we’re exactly the same,” says Meirelles.
For the crew and cast, which includes roughly 700 extras, making “Blindness” was alternately frightening, draining, and exhilarating. That was especially true of training to act “blind,” says Christian Duurvoort, an actor who coached his colleagues in a series of workshops.
Just as important as understanding the physical mechanics of being blind, Duurvoort says, was helping the actors deal with “the emotional state, the psychological state, being vulnerable.” Meirelles had emphasized that he wanted the extras to seem like desperate, traumatized human beings, not B-movie zombies.
Practically everyone working on the film donned a blindfold at some point, even the producers and the director.
In one exercise, the main actors were blindfolded and told to follow the sound of a bell. Ruffalo particularly had trouble and kept wandering around getting more and more lost. During shooting, Ruffalo wore special contact lenses that rendered him blind, though his eyes were open.
For the characters trapped in the Hobbesian purgatory of “Blindness,” the seeing are as cursed as the sight-impaired. As the growing epidemic spreads panic, hundreds of people, including the doctor and his wife, are rounded up by the government and placed in quarantine.
Rape and revenge killing come into play in the film. But so do valor, courage, and many small, redemptive acts of individual kindness. Through being blind, the principal characters discover (or rediscover) their ability to empathize with others.
Although “Blindness” won’t be an easy sell, Meirelles, screenwriter Don McKellar, and the production team are trying to leaven the book’s relentlessly grim atmosphere by capturing the mordant wit of Saramago’s third-person narrator.
“What allows you to stomach the book is that slightly ironic, distanced literary voice. And it’s also what keeps it from becoming a sort of exploitation film,” McKellar says.