Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blindness (2008)

One of the easiest criticisms of movies based on novels is that they pale in comparison to their source material. The book is always better than the movie, and the most common reason is that filmmakers take liberties with the author’s vision, adding scenes, dropping characters, and playing fast and loose with story to the point that the finished product sometimes resembles its predecessor only in name (see I Am Legend). City of God director Fernando Mereilles' film Blindness, an adaption of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel of the same name, bucks this trend by staying rigidly faithful to the novel. The film’s script, by Canadian cult figure Don McKellar, works exclusively within the framework of Saramago’s story, only dropping the smallest of scenes in the interest of time. Blindness is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel I’ve seen, and oddly, it’s all the worse for it.

Both the film and Saramago’s novel, which was considered by many (I would now say correctly) to be unfilmable, depict a sudden and unexplainable epidemic of “white blindness” that befalls an unnamed country. We follow a select group of characters, among them an ophthalmologist and his wife (Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore), a prostitute (Alice Braga), and an Old Man (Danny Glover), who catch the disease, which manifests itself as a milky whiteness rather than the blackout traditionally associated with blindness. They and others with the sickness (the rapid spread of which is conveyed in a chilling montage in one of the film’s better moments) are soon quarantined by the government and confined to a dilapidated mental institution with the warning that anyone who tries to leave will be shot.

Saramago’s story is shamelessly allegorical (which explains the purposely nebulous setting and the refusal to give the characters names), and this unfortunately means that the narrative unfolds with very few surprises. The government’s fear of its people and subsequent reaction, the lack of any kindness toward the sick--these are all pointed and calculated attempts at creating a moral fable. These are all too common in literature, and all too easily botched onscreen because of how rote they can be. So it’s not unexpected that what has started out as a kind of science fiction tale soon becomes a modern attempt at Lord of the Flies. The blind, crammed into tight quarters and forced to live in filth and squalor with little food, quickly become degraded to extreme levels. Soon, a former bartender (played with a wicked energy by Gael Garcia Bernal) has formed a gang and proclaimed himself “King” of the ward, hoarding the supplies and demanding payment-- money, jewelry, and eventually women-- in exchange for food.

The small group of characters at the center of the film are alone, their only help the doctor’s wife (Moore), who has miraculously retained her sight but went to the ward anyway to avoid abandoning her husband. She is the center of the film, alone in witnessing the wretchedness and the degradation of her fellow detainees. As could be expected, Moore is excellent in the role, and along with Garcia Bernal she is the most effective at creating a believable character out of a two-dimensional symbol. She is one of our very best actresses, and it’s no surprise that she takes the challenge of being the eyes of the audience in stride, even as her character is repeatedly put through hell. In fact, the cast here is universally fine, especially Danny Glover, who, though underused, makes the most of his role as a lonely man who finds solace in the makeshift family that is formed as the characters move through the post-apocalyptic conditions of the film's final third.

The problem is that beyond these extremes of human suffering and the tired and obvious parable of the frailty of human civilization, there just isn’t all that much on display in Blindness to make it worth enduring. The great accomplishment of Saramago’s novel is the rhythm he finds in his prose of telling a story without much visual description, of starkly recreating the feeling of being adrift in a sea of sounds and voices with no spatial or visual referents. This is obviously something a film director, especially one as in love the beauty of images as Ferandno Meirelles, will never be able to recreate onscreen, and so it’s no surprise that the film becomes relentlessly tethered to the doctor’s wife at the expense of everything else. Meirelles’ camera is precise and fluid, and outside of a few too many intentionally blurry shots (are these people blind, or just nearsighted?) the cinematography is impeccable. But beyond being slick and well composed, his shots reveal little emotional truth about his characters or their plight. The film’s handling of sound, on the other hand, is appropriately acute, especially the excellent music by Marco Antônio Guimarães. One scene in particular finds the detainees, exhausted and hungry, listening to some music on the Old Man’s radio. The simple beauty of the scene, which comes at one of the most trying moments of the film, lies in their newfound appreciation of the sounds, which seem to echo on some primordial level.

But this kind of profundity is scarcely found elsewhere in the film, which falters in its pathological loyalty to a story that was already too literary for its own good. Saramago’s book was told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator with a particularly cynical view of the world who would comment and even make light of the human failings and the folly that the characters displayed, often going off on lengthy tangents to make a philosophical point. Without the use of constant narration, this is something that a film simply can’t recreate (this is certainly not a new criticism-- fear of similar disconnect is why I'm still avoiding seeing Revolutionary Road.) We learn so little about the characters in Blindness, not even their names, and as an auteur Meirelles seems to have little to say about the world he creates. This leaves only the depravity, which is certainly disgusting and deplorable, but not even in a shocking enough way to be memorable or haunting. And all of this because the filmmakers, to their credit, tried to honor the material they were working from. I say it with hesitation, but it seems the best thing for Blindness would have been to play as fast and loose with the content of the book as was legally possible.

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