Fernando Meirelles first tried to adapt Blindness to the big screen in 1997. The answer of José Saramago, the novel’s author, was no. The years passed and other filmmakers asked Saramago to adapt his novels for the big screen. He continued to say no. One day two Canadians, the producer Niv Fichman and screenwriter Don McKellar, visited the Nobel Laureate. There aren’t details about their conversation; perhaps Saramago thought the author of Last Night perfect to adapt an apocalyptic novel; perhaps he didn’t even see it. Maybe he just liked their personalities. So he said yes. More years passed in search of a director. Someone asked him what about Fernando Meirelles. Saramago, who didn’t remember his refusal years before but had enjoyed City of God and The Constant Gardener, thought it was a good idea.
It was a long journey for this movie, but the result was worth it. Blindness grabs the viewer’s mind like a pair of steel claws and drags it down to the nether realms of the human soul, where there is no light and hopelessness rules.
In an unnamed city, an epidemic of blindness spreads through the population, wreaking havoc and forcing the authorities to quarantine the blind people. In this drama that brings together several strangers, there is a woman who can see, who follows her blind husband, the eye doctor who treats the first blind, to the quarantine asylum. Love is strong but will have to be stronger to endure the horrors in the filthy wards. Outside soldiers neglect their responsibility and let the blind fend for themselves. Inside the wards a civil war erupts over control of the food supply.
The blindness, of course, is a simple metaphor to reveal the blindness of everyday life in the way people treat each other, in the little acts of neglect and cruelty people commit against each other without realising it. In Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi explained the psychology that makes it easy to kill large masses of people. If we strip people of their humanity, of their hygiene, of their dignity, it becomes easy to stop seeing people as human. Once that happens it becomes easy to treat them sub-humanly. That is what happens to the blind isolated in the wards. Deprived of everything that connects them to Mankind, all, with the exception of the doctor’s wife, start losing sight of their everyday moral values and acting on the basis of survival.
Fernando Meirelles’ aesthetics is marvellous here: the movie was shot in several cities around the globe and actors from several countries were selected to give the movie a sense of universality. The message is clear: what happens in this movie can happen anywhere to anyone. The cinematography is inventive, using white filters to leave everything discoloured, like the viewer is experiencing a mild loss of sight himself. The panoramic shots of the devastated city are amazing too and are a grim portrait of how filthy and unusable the world will look like once we’re not here anymore. When we’re gone and if the famous alien archaeologists ever come to study our world, they won’t find relics, they’ll find cesspools.
The actors never falter. Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Maury Chaykin, Mark Ruffalo give solid performances. Julianne Moore, the woman who can see, constantly in doubt whether to intervene or pretend to be blind not to be exploited herself – for in this parable, the woman who can see in the land of the blind is not a queen – captures all the strength, compassion and perseverance of the character in the novel.
Gael García Bernal gives a chilling performance as the self-titled King of Ward 3, a dictator who takes control through violence and demands sex in return for food. When the eye doctor appeals to the humanity of one of his ward mates, the King is simple in his understanding of human nature: “Shut up. Shut up. He’s blind. That’s all. That doesn’t make him good or bad! That just makes him blind.”
The movie is not completely bleak. Yes, it shows the fragility of human life and human values and civilization. But it also shows the joy of being alive and the importance of compassion and equality in everyday life. Like Danny Glover’s character says at one point in the movie, darkness and light coexist. If this movie plumbs the depths of the human soul, it is only to show how stronger one can crawl out from it.
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, Danny Glover, Alice Braga
Runtime: 121 min