End-of-the-Earth sagas are a staple of horror and sci-fi, but it’s not just genre directors who make them. Filmmakers of all kinds are drawn to doomsday stories, as if they tire of creating worlds and after a few pictures long to destroy them. Off the top of my head, I can think of Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, with its rain of frogs), Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly), Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), Stanley Kramer (On the Beach), Michael Haneke (Time of the Wolf), Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove), Steven Spielberg (the Kubrick-inspired A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), Robert Altman (Quintet), Louis Malle (Black Moon), Danny Boyle (twice: 28 Days Later and Sunshine)—given time, Nora Ephron may put Kate Hudson in one (and our big blue marble will really be in trouble).
Add to the list Fernando Meirelles, with Blindness, an adaptation of the acclaimed 1995 novel by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago. In its favor, it has that blue-chip literary pedigree, and a respectable cast headed by Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and Y Tu Mama Tambien co-star Gael Garcia Bernal. But it’s neither fish nor fowl—not artful enough for the snooty arthouse crowed, too rarefied for the multiplex dunces—and comes to DVD a failure, tepidly received at Cannes (as so many festival openers are), with 60% rotten reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and boxoffice that was blind, deaf, and dumb. I was prepared to hate it (I was just itching to write “Blindness is lameness”—these are the jokes, kids), but, while not really liking it, it’s not half-bad, just fundamentally unappealing. It’s near the level of The Reader, another lackluster lit transfer, which I caught up with—and Miramax, which released Blindness, must regret no longer having Harvey Weinstein in its corner to bellow it to Oscar night.
Part of my reaction was relief that the director, whose City of God and The Constant Gardener drove me crazy with their anxious, Red Bull-fueled camerawork and caffeine-jag editing, relaxed. Visually Blindness has a calmer, floating quality, and is more fluidly presented, with hot bursts of lighting and dissolves to white to show an unnamed city (one part Sao Paulo, one part Montevideo, and one part Guelph and Toronto, in actuality) in the grips of an unexplained outbreak of blindness. The “unnamed” part, which works on the page but tends to crank up the pretension meter among viewers, extends to the characters, who include The Doctor (Ruffalo), who falls victim to the plague, and the Doctor’s Wife (Moore), who fakes blindness to join her husband in the grimy quarantine center authorities in the antiseptic metropolis have set up. In real life, public health authorities would handle all this differently (for one thing, the sightless might be enlisted to keep the newly blind from panicking) but this is blindness as metaphor for the despairing human condition; there’s none of the wry humor adaptor and co-star Don McKellar brought to his own take on the apocalypse genre, Last Night.
Faster than you can say “lord of the flies” the self-proclaimed “King of Ward 3” (Bernal), who has a gun, is nicking the rations supplied by the wary guards and hocking jewelry and other valuables from the terrorized inmates, like the Woman in Dark Glasses (Alice Braga, fresh off I Am Legend; she and Children of Men co-star Moore are becoming the stars of these shows) and the Man with the Dark Eye Patch (Glover), who philosophizes. The basic set-up is like that of The Day of the Triffids, where giant man-eating plants blind the populace before snacking on them; in place of the Triffids are the repulsive thugs in the third ward, who in exchange for food dine on the female captives in an unpleasant, hazily photographed gang rape scene (“Would you like me to palm, cup, or twist your nipples?”). Unpleasant, but unmoving: Afraid, perhaps, of mucking up the text too much, the film retreats to a middlebrow distance. This spares us the worst of the rough stuff but short-circuits the arbitrary glimmer-of-hope ending.
The book was staged, in 2007, by the New York-based Godlight Theatre Company, which I would think made more compelling use of the claustrophobic imprisonment sequences. They bog down here, and give us too much to time to think about things. Like, why does it take so long for Moore to assert herself and fight back? There’s a cerebral answer to this, but the ruminative aspect of Blindness is pretty see-through as a movie.
Extras on the handsome, letterboxed DVD are limited to a handful of deleted scenes (more rape!) and a comprehensive 55-minute documentary, “A Vision of Blindness,” which details how Meirelles didn’t want to make a “zombie movie” (which, harrumph, do make money), the “blindness camp” the actors trained in, and the subtle use of digital effects to heighten cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s stylized look. The documentary concludes with Meirelles nervously screening the picture for Saramago, who was not keen on a film version, in Lisbon. Afterwards the 86-year-old author says he appreciated the gesture—though is coy about saying if he liked the movie.
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