There are several excellent reasons for not wanting to make a film based on a book called Blindness, and Fernando Meirelles knows them all. But knowing them, and even treating them as challenges, is not quite the same as putting them to rest. Saramago’s novel (1995) is sly, oblique, consistent in its courtship of cliché, an apparent allegory that can’t be allegorised. Meirelles’s film, starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover and Gael García Bernal, is stylish and inventive at times, but keeps turning dogged, and is devoted to the allegory Saramago so studiously seeks to avoid. Much of the movie is lost in the flatlands of the medium, the sheer earnest effect of photographing actual people, and the general impression is that the director’s earlier City of God (2002) has turned into an old Hollywood parable like Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965).
The chief risk the movie runs is moral. It’s not a wonderful idea to treat anyone’s affliction as an emblem, even if you’re Breughel or St Luke, and spending two hours watching people who can’t watch anything stands a very good chance of creating a clunking dramatic irony. Given this risk, we could choose to focus on the way Meirelles courageously attacks it. Almost everything that is eerie and memorable in the movie has to do with this head-on approach. The colours shift into near black-and-white, or into faded, altered versions of shades we think we know. Figures vanish into a fog, only bent silhouettes remaining, as if they were slim relics of a Henry Moore exhibition. The screen goes dark. The screen goes white. A traffic light becomes an icon, a strange crystalline object, permanently red. Then we see its twin, permanently green. Outside the movie such lights succeed each other as part of a sign system, but in this world we are seeing the suspension of the system, the end of visual signs. The film opens with stopped traffic and arrives at scenes where traffic is only wrecked and abandoned.
The blindness in the novel and the movie is not of any kind known to medicine, although it’s easier to forget this in the movie. The condition is something like a pure disease, clinically causeless and rabidly contagious, and it doesn’t produce darkness in the subject, it plunges him or her into a white mist which occludes the whole visual world. There is a remarkable moment at the end of the film where the screen itself goes white, and you think for a second everyone, and perhaps you yourself, have been struck by this imaginary disease. Then the camera pans slowly down into a recognisable world. It was just looking at the sky.
Here’s how the story goes. A man in a car in city traffic suddenly finds he can’t see. A kindly Samaritan drives him home (and steals his car). The man goes to see an eye specialist who has, understandably, never known anything like his new patient’s condition, finds no organic damage or disorder, and indeed has only the man’s word for it that he has lost his sight. Soon he doesn’t need the man’s word, since he himself, along with the Samaritan and the other patients in the doctor’s waiting-room, is also sightless, and an epidemic has begun. The city authorities quarantine the sufferers, and all the people we have met so far meet up again in the ugly facility set aside for them, patrolled by security guards borrowed from the riot control force that all movie studios (and many actual cities) have at their disposition.
The slightly hokey plot device that sustains both novel and movie involves the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore in the film), who can see but pretends she can’t in order to be rounded up with her husband. For reasons best known to the writers she continues to pretend even among the sightless, without succeeding, as far as I can tell, in deceiving anyone. This is where the threat of allegory, the all too meaningful story of the failure of moral or imaginative sight, descends even on the novel. Still, it’s useful to have two eyes in the realm where a one-eyed person is proverbially king, and it’s especially useful when it comes to killing Gael García Bernal, the charming leader of the bad guys, a master of anti-solidarity who holds the whole facility up to ransom, demanding first everyone’s valuables and then the sexual submission of the women in return for the food packages he has taken under his control. It says a great deal about the film’s loss of pace that we are so sorry to see him go.
Finally the inmates escape into the city, only to learn that it has been devastated by the same epidemic: trash and broken cars and buses everywhere, the streets deserted except for blind scavengers, and the odd pack of dogs making a meal of a corpse – there is some very plausible stretching of rubbery flesh, I mean fleshy rubber, in this scene. A happy community is built among a select set of survivors – all the nicer members of the group we met at the beginning – and at the end it looks as if everyone’s sight is returning, as mysteriously as it went. It’s the mystery, and the memory of so much earlier ugliness, that saves these scenes, and indeed the whole movie, from total soppiness. Because we don’t know why the disease came or went, we don’t know when or if it will come back, and this little fringe of fear lingers when the movie is over, a hint that safety doesn’t have to be an illusion but must always in some sense be provisional, a matter of time and place and luck.
At times Meirelles picks up Saramago’s tone. ‘We need a leader with vision,’ a character says, heedless of the cruelty of the metaphor. Near the beginning of the film, establishing quarantine for blind people, the authorities decide to communicate with them through a video recording. This is a place where our seeing what the victims can’t see has a bitter edge to it; as does the moment when we survey the condition of the living quarters of the blind, littered with all the rubbish and filth they can’t see to pick up. Meirelles’s goal, in other words, is not to keep miming the condition of sightlessness – that would be tough even for an avant-garde movie, let alone for Miramax (USA) or Pathé (UK) – but to connect us consistently with the thought of it. And this does involve at least one brilliant moment of miming, where Julianne Moore goes into the dark basement of a supermarket, and we descend into the darkness with her, leaving the fully lit ground floor of the shop, full of blind looters groping for food among the almost empty shelves. The screen is dark for what must be a matter of seconds but feels like a very long time. There are noises of a stumbling person. Then other, less easily identifiable noises. Then Moore strikes a match and she and we can see what there is to see: a treasure house of bread and fruit and salami and other goodies. But we do need to remember just what it is that is being mimed here: not blindness, but the effect of darkness on a person who can see. Moore’s relation to everyone else in the movie is the same as ours.
These are the moments where Meirelles gets the medium to work for him. The chief snag with the film, the one that gives it so dull and so long a middle patch, is that too often he is working for the medium, just doing its bidding. There are film equivalents for cool irony, long paragraphs, and flowing, scarcely punctuated prose, but they are not available to you as long as you are realistically photographing actors shuffling around a more or less realistic set. Meirelles settles into this mode as into a kind of default, and then wakes up again towards the end of the film. It’s not that the camera automatically catches the real, as theorists used to say, registering, in Benjamin’s words, ‘the tiny spark of contingency . . . with which reality has . . . seared the subject’, or suggesting, in Barthes’s phrase, that ‘the Photograph always carries its referent within itself.’ It’s that, left to its own mimetic devices, the camera will always look as if it’s doing this, and we shall gaze past it into what seems a hopelessly unarranged and unimprovable world.