Blindness (Canada/Brazil/Japan 2008)

The group of 'typical' characters on the 'outside' in Blindness

The group of ‘typical’ characters on the ‘outside’ in Blindness

Blindness is a good example of a certain kind of ‘global cinema’. It’s fascinating as a production project and intriguing as a narrative concept, but although technically highly competent, I fear that it doesn’t work.

The film is based on a novel by José Saramago, an octogenarian Portuguese Nobel prizewinner in 1998. I’m ashamed that I know so little about this writer and that I haven’t read the novel. I did get the impression, however, that the novel is a form of speculative fiction which involves a detailed consideration of the human condition under stress. Film adaptations of books like this are very difficult to pull off and sometimes it is the low budget exploitation pic take on the central idea which works best. In this case, the successful Brazilian director of two high profile ‘international specialised films’, Fernando Meirelles, has the task of bringing the novel’s ideas to the screen. The question is, what kind of film will it be?

The novel (i.e. what I understand from some basic research) provides both the central storyline and the nameless characters. In an unnamed city/country a man is struck down by a ‘white’ blindness which is somehow passed on to everyone he meets, except the wife of the ophthalmologist he goes to see. All of these people (including the wife with sight) are quarantined in conditions which rapidly get worse. Eventually the whole community is ‘infected’.

I was surprised that Saramago provided the whole storyline – I’d assumed that he was mainly concerned with the ‘inside’ story during quarantine. It seems to me that the film splits into an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ section (which provides the beginning and end of the story. (It’s something of an ‘open ending’.)

The inside story is clearly metaphorical/allegorical. The characters are symbolic in representing common character types and presumably aspects of humanity who over the central part of the story struggle to survive and maintain their sense of themselves as moral beings. Once outside, the characters are portrayed in more ‘realist’ representations of street scenes. There are two problems with this. First, the ‘nameless characters’ include the film’s stars (for American and European audiences) Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Alice Braga and Gael García Bernal. The problem with stars is, of course, that we immediately bring expectations about the roles that they will play. It is more difficult to think of them as nameless, allegorical everypersons – unless the aesthetic of the film makes clear that this is the scenario it wishes to construct. As soon as a whiff of narrative-driven genre entertainment is apparent, the presence of stars becomes a problem. For what it’s worth, I thought Gael García Bernal’s cameo was terrific, but all the others seemed less well-used. It didn’t help that there was some pretty clunky dialogue. The ‘minor’ characters had little to do so that often the film seemed marooned between serious contemplation of moral decisions and action/thriller/horror sequences. I wasn’t sure what to think about the two Japanese actors who were there presumably as part of the co-production deal, but who in the narrative contributed little as characters.

The second major issue concerns the shooting locations. ‘Outside’ appears to be an amalgam of São Paulo, Montevideo and Toronto – rendered in a palette skewed towards blue/grey/white. This works OK as the nameless city (where C&A, a brand long gone in the UK, still appears on the high street) but it seems like a completely different world in the quarantine quarters (which, if I read the credits properly, appears to be a disused prison in Guelph, Ontario). This interior fits the allegorical nature of the story well and I was reminded of Sam Fuller films like Shock Corridor (1963). Fuller tended to use B movie actors, distinctive cinematography and editing on a low budget. The result was stunning and its effect was delivered through a consistent, committed style. The same just isn’t there in Blindness, which I think would have been better either as ‘all allegory’ or else genre SF thriller. If not Fuller, perhaps Cronenberg?

I don’t want to imply that the film is badly made or that those involved were not committed, just that, for me, it didn’t work. Nor am I against the global co-production idea. It worked well on Children of Men, directed by the Mexican, Alfonso Cuarón. Ironically, that was also based on an SF novel – by the arguably more ‘popular’ novelist P. D. James. Although roundly criticised, Children of Men worked for me because it was treated as a genre film. I think Meirelles would have been better off with less money and a more genre-focused or more arthouse script.

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