October 3, 2008

Epidemic Puts Human Nature to the Test Review

By A.O. Scott

Blindness Directed

by Fernando Meirelles

Reviewed by A.O. Scott


In "Blindness," Fernando Mei relles's adaptation of the novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, human civilization is threatened by a sudden and virulent outbreak of metaphor. As people go about their daily lives in an unidentified city (a brilliantly shot, digitally tweaked composite of Toronto, Tokyo and S-o Paulo), they begin, one by one, to lose their sight. No organic cause can be found for this condition, which manifests itself not as a descent into darkness but as a whiteout, as if the world had become a blank page, an empty screen or a puddle of milk.

Panic ensues, and the government quarantines the afflicted in an unused sanitarium, where they act out a pageant revealing the deep and ugly truths of human nature for the benefit of an audience encouraged to wonder What It All Means. We notice, first of all, the failures of compassion that greet the initial outbreak, and then, once the blind are sequestered, the decline of their makeshift society into a primordial condition of tribal war. We see decency, reason and fellow-feeling challenged by stronger impulses toward domination and selfishness, and observe how goodness can triumph by means of violence and deceit.

That none of this is meant to be taken literally is signaled by an ambient fuzziness familiar to anyone who has dabbled, as reader or writer, in the cloudy waters of literary allegory. "Blindness," which opened in Brazil in September and on Friday in the United States and will open in many other countries worldwide in October and November, concentrates on a small group of people, each with a thematic identity and a clear narrative function, not one with a name. When they stumble into the quarantine ward, these characters introduce themselves by number, according to order of arrival, and by profession, evidence that they have been stripped of their humanity not by sickness or the state, but rather by Saramago and by Don McKellar, the screenwriter.

The main group, most of whom we have encountered at least briefly before their incarceration, includes an ophthalmologist and his wife (Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore), a prostitute (Alice Braga), a thief (McKellar), a mysterious old man (Danny Glover), a child (Mitchell Nye) and a Japanese yuppie couple (Yusuke Iseya and Yoshino Kimura). Their rivals, quartered in another ward, are led by a bartender (Gael Garcia Bernal) who turns himself into a cruel, capricious monarch and whose rise to power is aided by a lieutenant (Maury Chaykin) with the advantage of having been blind all his life.

The ophthalmologist's wife, meanwhile, has retained her sight, which gives her tattered clan a bit of an edge in the struggle for domination and survival that occupies the film's long middle section. Her condition also makes her a surrogate for the audience and the crucial ingredient in the film's murky thematic stew. We wonder why she, apparently alone among the inhabitants of the city, was spared. Is it because she was nice to her husband when he went blind? We also wonder whether, or how, her apparently limitless patience and pity will withstand the challenge of caring for a filthy and terrified accidental family.

In its original incarnation as a novel, "Blindness" belongs with those other important 20th-century allegories that use an imagined communal disaster as the laboratory for a moral thought experiment. Other notable examples, drawn from the charmed circle of Nobel Prize winners, might include "The Plague" by Albert Camus and "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding. Saramago's book, lacking the dark simplicity of Camus's fable, is more likely to join Golding's well- worn novel as term-paper fodder for high school English classes.

An interesting transmutation sometimes occurs when the pedagogical machinery of this kind of book is brought to the screen. The characters in Meirelles's film may be ciphers, as they are in the mechanical universe of Saramago's novel, but they are also Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga and the rest of those names listed in parentheses above. And this simple fact makes a big difference.

Saramago's lofty, ideologically defended humanism has no place for actual human beings, but actors of this caliber don't know how to be anything else. Moore's pale, fine-boned face is too precise and delicate an instrument to obey the rather simplistic directives of the story, and the rest of the cast shares her inability to sacrifice physical or psychological nuance in the service of vague ideas.

Meirelles (a Brazilian filmmaker whose previous features include "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener") sometimes seems overly enamored of arresting images, manipulating light, color and composition at the expense of emotional or narrative clarity.

Here, he revels in the paradox of trying to use a visual medium to convey the experience of sightlessness, and excels at showing what the world of the blind might look like. And he is not above exploiting both the comical and the horrific aspects of their condition, punctuating scenes of cruelty and dread with moments of grimly funny slapstick.

"Blindness" is not a great film, mainly because it can't transcend - and, indeed, lays bare - the intellectual flimsiness of its source. But it is, nonetheless, full of examples of what good filmmaking looks like. For all its chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing attitudes, it does not, in the end, give you much to think about.

But there is, nonetheless, a lot here to see.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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