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MOVIES Less Than Meets the Eye ‘Blindness’ Lacks Insight, Sensitivity of Dark Novel

October 3, 2008

By DUANE DUDEK

People often are disappointed in, and rarely recognize, the books they love when they are made into movies. Reading is a private experience and films are a shared experience. Reading is an act of the imagination, and films obscure the personal interpretation of events and characters intrinsic to it.

There may be exceptions, but “Blindness” isn’t one of them.

Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel is a deeply metaphoric tale about urban alienation, in which loss of sight is the great equalizer. And while not plotless, it is suggestive and sensitive in ways that the film by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles isn’t.

Meirelles, who directed the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film “City of God,” has crafted a lurid, even hysterically visual, but dramatically trite and obvious approximation of whatever was intended by Saramago, who at 85 may be the world’s oldest living Marxist. It took nearly a decade of persuasion by Don McKellar — a Canadian actor who wrote the screenplay and who wrote and directed “Last Night,” a similarly themed look at the end of the world as we know it — for a reluctant Saramago to give his consent to the film.

As global institutions fail left and right, “Blindness” remains a fable for our time.

It is ostensibly about a pathogen called “the white sickness” — because when its victims lose their vision, the world turns the color of a blank sheet of paper — that spreads in daisy-chain fashion; one victim infects the next. But it is really a portrait of fear, panic and social collapse, set in a world that is a hybrid of the foreign and familiar, and the antique and the futuristic.

Like everyone who comes in contact with the first victim, the eye doctor, played by Kenosha native Mark Ruffalo, who treated him, wakes up sightless the next day. However, his wife, played by Julianne Moore, is uninfected and keeps her vision secret.

They and other victims, including McKellar, Danny Glover and Gael Garcia Bernal, are put into isolation in a crude warehouse with no resources and forced into an uneasy interdependence.

Ruffalo becomes a powerless authority figure in the microcosmic tribal society, which becomes cluttered with garbage and human waste. As it descends into violence and chaos, his voice of “reason” is regarded with suspicion and resentment, and he becomes resentful of his reliance on Moore.

The suggestion is that what is going on in the outside world, which is never shown, must resemble this on a massive scale.

But the broader picture is actually a cautionary portrait of our own world, where the blind lead the blind in aimless fashion. Meirelles bathes the screen in blinding shades of white, against which the pale-as-milk Moore is so washed out as to disappear.

“Blindness” joins a long list of plague-themed films — like the poignant and ambiguous “Safe,” by Todd Haynes, in which Moore played a woman allergic to modern life — whose meanings are in the eye of the beholder.

Blindness ** 1/2

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Danny Glover, Alice Braga, Gael Garcia Bernal, Don McKellar

Behind the scenes: Produced by Niv Fichman, Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Sonoko Sakai. Written by Don McKellar. Directed by Fernando Meirelles.

Rated: R; violence, language, sex, nudity

Approximate running time: 121 minutes

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E-mail: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Read Duane’s blog, Dudek on Film, at blogs.jsonline.com/dudek

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