Sunday, October 5, 2008

Blindness (****)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles


Fernando Meirelles' new film Blindness was chosen to open up this year's Cannes Film Festival, which is a great honor in the film world. It was universally panned by all the critics there, and passed off as mishandled muddle. In test screenings, many woman walked out in protest of the harshness of the rape scenes (to be explained), so Meirelles compromised, and did some more work. He cut scenes, voice-overs, and made the film a bit more viable to the audience, but it is still being cut down by critics and movie-goers alike--even being ravaged by the National Federation of the Blind (how's that for irony? Protesting a movie you can't see). So why is it, that the film that I saw, was one of the very best I've seen so far this year?

Perhaps because I've read the source material. It is based on the Nobel Prize winning novel, of the same name, by Portugeuse author Jose Saramago. I'll admit that this makes me bias toward this piece of work, and it certainly makes the film easier to understand, but I'm still in shock by the film community's collective disdain of such a powerful, provocative film. Sure, Meirelles meanders in his experimental cinematography, but its all there to add to the disorientment this film requires.

The story begins when a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya) goes blind while driving his car. Another man (Don McKellar) helps to drive him home, and uses the oppurtunity to steal his car afterward. The blind man's wife (Yoshino Kimura) comes home and takes him to a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who sees nothing wrong with the man's eyes. The blind man sees a piercing whiteness, and the doctor is baffled by these symptoms, which he has never heard of before. The doctor goes home to his wife (Julianne Moore), and when he wakes up that morning, he has gone blind.

Cases of blindness start popping up all over, and the government's instant reaction is to round up the blind, and throw them into quarantine inside an abandoned mental hospital. The doctor's wife is able to join her husband, and they are joined by the first blind man and his wife, the car thief, as well as a woman with dark glasses (Alice Braga), a young boy (Mitchell Nye), and an older man with an eyepatch (Danny Glover). The population doubles and triples by the day, and while some try to create a diplomatic order within the different wards, one man finds a gun, and labels himself 'King of Ward 3' (Gael Garcia Bernal).

The King of Ward 3, along with his group of faceless minions take charge of all the food, and demand that the other wards pay for their rations. How do they pay? With their valuables and their women. What transpires is a horrific sequence of events that no doubt challenges the audience, but what people forget is the film's metaphorical message. Sure, metaphor is something for literature, and is not meant to be used often in the visual art form of cinema, but this film is so powerful in its depiction of human strength, that it is something that must be recognized.

Meirelles does not seem to be the kind of filmmaker who puts much stock into what people think about his films. With the masterpiece City of God and the compelling drama The Constant Gardener, he has already showcased his audacity and bravery with the camera. People say that he has backstepped his way into pretension with Blindness, and there are some aspects of the picture (heavy-handed images, long focuses on screens of pure whiteness) where its hard to argue against it, but Meirelles sticks to his guns in making a faithful adaptation of Saramago's brilliant book.

I've already shown how much I admire the work of Julianne Moore (if you don't know what I mean, you can read about it in this film review), but its hard not to commend her again in the work she does with this character. More than any other, even Meirelles to a degree, the film is solely in her hands. It is her intensity and sincerity that makes this film plausible. As the only one who can still see, the Doctor's Wife is a character that should be dealt with a great deal of subtlety, and Moore does not shy away from the oppurtunity. Her commitment and fearlessness allow the movie to stand tall above its overstated themes, and become a story of the human spirit.

This is not a film for the easily-disturbed, but after all the hollaring I'd heard about this film's authentic montrousness, I was surprised to find how much of the movie was told with descretion. Literature and cinema are two different mediums entirely, so I won't be upset if those who hated the movie haven't read the book, but it does help decipher what this film wishes to accomplish. Saramago's novel is a masterpiece, a harrowing piece of work meant to examine the way humanity always finds a way to overcome the most hellish of circumstances, and I would recommend anybody read it. As for the film, its power is not as awesome as Saramago's mystical prose, but it is not as far off as those would suggest.

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