Sleight of light

Since its premiere at Cannes in 2008, Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness has been coldly received by many critics on the grounds that it soft-pedals or dumbs down its source material: the 1995 novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago about an outbreak of contagious blindness in an unnamed modern city, the authorities of which leave the blind to fend for themselves in a quarantine camp that descends into chaos and hell.

I disagree with the detractors. For me, Meirelles, along with screenwriter Don McKellar and cinematographer Cesar Charlone, have created an elegant, gripping and visually outstanding film. It responds to the novel’s notes of apocalypse and dystopia, and its disclosure of a spiritual desert within the modern city, but also to its persistent qualities of fable, paradox and even whimsy.

I wonder if this adaptation has not also imported the flavour of Saramago’s strange coda-sequel, Seeing, set in the same city just four years later, during a national election in which the majority of the city’s electorate spontaneously cast blank votes, a viral outbreak of willed constitutional blindness that allows its petrified government to see the fragility of democratic authority and to which they respond, yet again, with quarantine — cordoning off the city. (The existence of this sequel arguably spoils the open-ended chill of the original, although the ending of Seeing perhaps explains the final, ambiguous moments of Blindness as some kind of prophecy.)

The catastrophe begins with a terrified Japanese businessman (Yusuke Iseya) who goes blind at the wheel of his luxury car, seeing only a milky whiteness, and passes his condition to an opportunist thief (Don McKellar) who is pretending to help him. The businessman is taken by his wife to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who is also treating a high-class prostitute (Alice Braga) who unwittingly passes the terrible plague to the barman (Gael Garcia Bernal) at the hotel where she plies her trade — and so it goes on.

All these people, in this casual chain of human non-contact, are led like terrified animals into the sordid, hellish blindness camp: they neither knew nor much cared who they brushed up against in the teeming city, but now this sequence of indifference is transformed into a horribly important choreography of doom. The key fact is that one inmate, the doctor’s wife, played by Julianne Moore, can secretly see — she alone must bear the burden of observing how horrendous the world can become.

The world of the blindness camp is an unthinkable nightmare, but, for all its horror and despair, it is not aimed at us with precisely the same realist stab as, say, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. As in the book, none of the characters is named and the occasional musing voiceover and comic interlude indicate that the proceedings are to be taken seriously but somehow not entirely literally.

When I first saw this film, it reminded me of both George Romero’s zombie movies and Peter Shaffer’s stage play Black Comedy — on a second viewing, this latter, absurdist quality predominates, although with a darker hue: the white blindness as black tragedy. Cinema is a visual medium, so no film version of Blindness could entirely reproduce its buried literary conceit of the “blind” reader having to imagine what the narrator is describing, and yet this film is an intelligent, tightly constructed, supremely confident adaptation. —

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