By Erica Abeel
Take it as a sign of some general anxiety disorder gripping the planet, but Cannes 2008 kicked off on a distinctly somber note. In “Blindness,” the fest opener by Fernando Meirelles, civilization as we know it goes to hell and back when a group of urbanites in an unnamed city succumb to an epidemic of mysterious blindness. Only a character known as The Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore, in a powerful turn) remains immune to the malady. Finding herself a leader in a world of savagery and chaos, she helps forge a new form of community that takes the film to a happier place (cue Kumbaya on the soundtrack).
Based on the celebrated allegorical novel by JosÃ© Saramago, the film displays the ability first demonstrated by Meirelles in “City of God” to choreograph large groups of beleaguered folks through explosive situations. He’s ably assisted by an international cast who were coached by an expert in blindness that also includes Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Alice Braga. In adapting this story, Meirelles confronted a daunting new task: finding an equivalent in cinema, the visual art par excellence, to convey the milky white sightlessness visited on his characters. Add to this the challenge of both bringing a human face to nameless characters who are generic stand-ins for humankind and striking a balance between gripping drama and the wider philosophical connotations of blindness intended by Saramago.
Whether or not Meirelles successfully met these challenges has been a hot topic of debate on the Croisette. I sat down to speak with the engaging, forthcoming filmmaker following the premiere of his film.
Part of “Blindness” was set in SÃ£o Paulo but how important was it to keep the city unidentified?
It was very important because it becomes, really, a generic story, a story about mankind. That’s why I chose a multinational cast. If we were to identify SÃ£o Paulo, people would think it was a story about Brazil. But it’s about our common plight.
Did the actors mind not having a backstory for the characters?
Well, Gael had an interesting reaction. He said, I never think about the character’s past. I think about his desire, what my character wants. The film goes forward, so for me it doesn’t matter what’s behind. I start and I know what I want, and that’s what I think all the time. I love Gael’s performance as a bad guy.
How did you strike a balance between the allegorical aspect and the human drama?
The book suggests a film that’s very allegorical, like a fantasy outside of space, outside the world especially in the Portuguese Saramago writes, a bit like Old English for you.
But I went in the opposite direction. I tried to do a very naturalistic film, to engage the audience, make them ask themselves, “What would I do if put in this situation? How would I react?” I tried for a more naturalistic register so people could identify otherwise it would be a very cold film. It’s a hard film to get involved with, but it could be even harder.
Saramago feared some filmmaker would make a “zombie film” out of his book.
That was sort of a joke. We worked with the characters on the experience of being blind. It’s very well done and consistent though a couple of the extras look like fakes…
Why doesn’t Julianne’s character take action sooner? Instead of just going through the rapes?
You know, it’s a cultural thing, that question. In the book there are two rapes and the third time she kills the guy. I show the film to British people, and in Canada and Brazil, and no one reacts that way. I show the film in the U.S. and the first thing people say is, “Why doesn’t she kill them, why doesn’t she attack them?” There are some moral dilemmas in this film that I love.
In what larger sense, according to your film, is humanity blind?
Sometimes you don’t see the person next to you like your wife. When you have a fight, it’s because you can’t see what the other person sees, so you disagree. You don’t see the same thing. There’s some blindness involved in most conflicts. And there’s a more obvious blindness what happens in Sudan doesn’t affect us. Two weeks ago 35,000 people were dying from the cyclone there. We don’t want to see this thing. There’s blindness in all levels, from the personal to the larger. Even in ourselves we don’t want to face ourselves, we find excuses. That’s what I like about this theme. Maybe we go blind to protect ourselves. I really think if you can look at the person next to you, it’s liberating. But we’re afraid. That’s what the story’s about people who can’t see lose their humanity, and then they get it back. They’re able to create a family and love and respect each other. And they get their sight back. I think it’s a nice parable.
[Photos: Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo; Danny Glover; Gael GarcÃa Bernal – “Blindness,” Miramax Films, 2008]