Blindness, Reviews

The First World chooses not to see, even though we’re looking

Reed Johnson to The Sydney Morning Herald

MARK RUFFALO and Julianne Moore are traipsing through a rubbish-strewn urban wasteland, scavenging for salvation. All around them, dozens of pitiful humans 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.

It is not a pretty sight, but it is impossible to avert your eyes – which is exactly the point. The 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 live like animals.

Critics heralded Saramago’s novel as a brutal but compelling allegory of the 20th century’s house of horrors: the Holocaust, the stigmatisation 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 obsession with apocalyptic story lines: I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later, the Christian/sci-fi Left Behind books, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.

And if this film’s 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 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.

Filming of the combined Japanese, Canadian and Brazilian co-production wrapped up last year in the chaotic Brazilian mega-city of Sao Paulo. The film will open this year’s Cannes Film Festival before its US release in August.

Originally published in Portuguese as Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Essay About Blindness), Saramago’s international best seller might have been titled Eyes Wide Shut. In book and film, blindness is not only a physical condition but a metaphor for the darker side of human nature: prejudice, selfishness, violence and wilful indifference.

Blindness is about how we, as humans, look but do not always see. It is about how quickly our seemingly stable lives, even in so-called developed nations, can spiral into anarchy and barbarism.

“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, who has made something of a specialty of translating Third World moral quandaries into gripping dramatic narratives with which First World audiences identify.

For the cast of roughly 700 extras, Blindness was frightening, draining and exhilarating. They were trained to act “blind” by Christian Duurvoort, an actor who coached his colleagues. 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 wanted the extras to seem like traumatised people, not B-grade 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 had particular trouble and kept wandering around getting lost. During shooting, he wore a thick make-up layer to make him appear older and special contact lenses that rendered him blind.

“At first it’s terrifying and then it’s frustrating and then it gets quiet,” says Ruffalo. “We’re tormented by our eyesight. A beautiful girl walks by; cars; clothes; terrible things on television. You don’t know this until you go blind … As an actor I suddenly felt free.”

For the characters trapped in the Hobbesian purgatory of Blindness, the seeing are as cursed as the sight-impaired.

Hundreds of people, including the doctor and his wife, are rounded up and placed in quarantine, where they are menaced by a gang of thugs led by a very unsavory Gael Garcia Bernal.

The movie does not shy from depicting the degrading conditions, although it will spare audiences some of the novel’s more excruciating details, such as people slipping on excrement.

Rape and revenge killing come into play. But so do valour, courage and small, redemptive acts of kindness. Through their blindness, the principal characters discover (or rediscover) their ability to empathise with others. “It’s at times the very best we can be, and also the ugliest and basest and worst that mankind has toward one another,” Ruffalo says.

Los Angeles Times

The 61st Cannes Film Festival opens on May 14.