Friday, October 3, 2008

Look the Other Way when it comes to Blindness

Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo ask for antibiotics.

The eagerly awaited cinema adaptation of Saramango’s book, Blindness, fails to live up to the literary masterpiece. The territory of man reduced to a Hobbsian state of nature takes on the familiar pattern of many an apocalyptic film. Will it be a Disney ending where the good guys win or cynically conclude the other way?

In the film, a metropolitan city in which no one is particularly nice to anyone else, an infectious white blindness strikes the population. Anyone who comes in contact with one infected is left unable to see anything but a milky whiteness. Only Julianne Moore, in the role of the doctor’s wife, seems to escape the plague, though she plunges herself into the heart of darkness by accompanying her husband into quarantine at a former mental institution. There, she and her husband, the opthamologist, serve as leaders to Ward One and the arriving victims. They create a utopian society, of sorts, until an opportunistic and self preserving man, known once as a Thief and Bartender, declares himself the King of Ward Three. Using a gun and a genuine blind man who is not adjusting to a sudden change, he dominates and terrorizes the institution, demanding first goods, and then women, in exchange for inadequate food rations. Things progress into a war of good vs. evil, until the discovery that the guards are gone and the plague has affected everyone. Then, the doctor and his wife lead the original group to their house.
The film works in its ambiance, as one would expect from outstanding director Fernando Meirelles (City of God). Switching from eyeball bending close ups to shaky patches and the periodic flash of white, he conveys the disorientation of sudden sight loss and the helplessness of wanting to see when one cannot. At crucial moments, he stays with the characters as they cry or lapse into despair, as though their emotional voices trump the need to see. The decay of the ward and the city mirrors the decay in morals as well.

The film fails, though, to create realistic characters that are sympathetic or vital. This is not the fault of the actors, but rather of the script itself. The story never gets to the heart of the struggle of the doctor’s wife to save others at the expense of her morality, or the gulf of grief that has unmoored the Japanese couple. Even the doctor’s decision to turn to the prostitute for solace seems to have no place in the film. The little boy is an afterthought. By focusing on so many characters, none of them are adequately developed and each one seems to develop without adequate justification. The film needs a better script. The switch from the ward to the city is handled poorly, and serves as a recreation of what has already been lived – a movement from lawlessness to… more lawlessness… It ends with redemption, but one wonders why.

Another complaint is that the blindness turns most people into animals, a point illustrated by a pack of dogs tearing apart a deceased man on a flight of steps, while one dog walks past. Are we to believe that everyone is so shallow and brute that a tragedy of great magnitude destroys our humanity. I am more inclined to think otherwise. More than a few people would quickly adapt to being blind, finding inner resources to survive and using their intelligence to thrive. Don’t any of these people have dogs???

Overall, Blindness is a great idea but the terrain is well beaten. It offers nothing new to the theme and strips the book of its best observations.

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