Locus Online



6 October 2008

A Lack of Vision: A Review of Blindness

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by Don McKellar, based on the novel by José Saramago

Starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Mitchell Nye, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal, Don McKellar, Maury Chaykin, and Sandra Oh

Official site: Blindness

Officially, I am not qualified to review Fernando Meirelles's new film, Blindness, since my area of demonstrable expertise is science fiction and fantasy literature and film, and the Internet Movie Database places this film only in the categories of "drama," "romance," "mystery," and "thriller." Based on a plot summary, this might seem paradoxical, since a new contagious disease which causes a strange form of blindness throughout a city would appear to represent the sort of contrafactual yet scientifically possible premise which is purportedly characteristic of science fiction. And while terms like "disease" and "epidemic" do not usually figure in fantasy, one might also explain a spreading loss of sight as the result of some malignant spell or ancient curse.

However, Blindness and the José Saramago novel it is based upon (officially, Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira [1995], or "Essay on Blindness") fall into a third, more vaguely defined category of imaginative literature which is variously described as surrealism, absurdism, or magic realism. Science fiction and fantasy follow certain rules; thus, a science fiction story about an unimaginably horrific epidemic would eventually offer a scientific explanation as to why the problem occurred (as a meteor shower accounts for universal blindness in John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids [1951]) and would likely conclude with a scientist's triumphant discovery of a miraculous cure (as occurs at the end of I Am Legend [2006]), while a fantasy along similar lines would probably involve a learned wizard who consults ancient books of lore to discover the cause of the blight and a magical way to eliminate it. But in absurdist fiction, unusual or impossible events occur simply because the author wants them to occur and believes that they will lead to interesting and revelatory stories; no explanations are provided, and the characters affected by these events do not demand explanations, but simply come to accept the strange events as aspects of their everyday lives. Like the novel, this film moves quickly to establish its distinctive genre: the first man to go blind (Yusuke Iseya) immediately visits an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) who after numerous tests can learn nothing about his ailment and can do nothing to help him; a bit later, when hundreds of people have been afflicted, the government's Minister of Health (Sandra Oh) summons scores of medical experts from the "World Health Initiative" to investigate the problem, but all of their efforts are similarly fruitless. And, after these introductory flourishes, nothing further is said regarding scientific explanations or potential cures in the manner of science fiction; rather, we merely observe ordinary people dealing with the consequences of their sudden blindness, and any complaints that their situation, or their responses to their situation, make little sense would be entirely beside the point. (It would be like disparaging Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros [1959] on the grounds that having every person in the world except for one man turn into a rhinoceros doesn't really make any sense.)

Instead, only one explanation can properly be demanded about the novel and film Blindness — namely, why would an author wish to tell a story about an epidemic of blindness? Well, one traditional goal of literature is to probe the Human Condition, and one way to do that is to place people in unusual or stressful circumstances in order to test their true character. And when a group of people experience such adversity, one common discovery is that our celebrated "civilization" is only a thin veneer concealing an underlying animalistic nature that inexorably reveals itself when people are under pressure — a point made clearly enough to be understood by high-schoolers in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) and made more subtly in other works. Clearly, this is one of Saramago's points as well, for when the government rounds up the early victims of blindness and imprisons them in an abandoned mental hospital, they quickly begin to act like animals in that Golding-like microcosm, alternately driven by a mad desire for food and drink and the overpowering impulse to urinate or defecate its waste products away (with occasional bursts of sexual passion as their only diversion from this routine). And herein lies one reason to criticize Saramago's vision: should one really posit that universal blindness would inevitably lead to the complete collapse of human civilization? After all, there are many blind people today leading perfectly civilized lives, often with little or no assistance from the sighted, and while an epidemic of mass blindness would undoubtedly result in some temporary disruptions, one has to imagine that people would soon adjust to their changed circumstances, develop coping mechanisms, and re-establish a civilized society. (For that matter, I happen to think that a bunch of schoolboys stranded on an island would handle the situation much better than Golding's brats, but such foolish optimism is, of course, more characteristic of science fiction than of great works of literature.) To further alienate blind people who dislike the way that he links blindness and helplessness, Saramago did not choose as his hero an already blind person, who could capably deal with matters at hand and school others in how to function as blind people, or even a suddenly blind person who proves unusually able to quickly adjust to a lack of sight and provide effective leadership. Rather, a previously blind person appears only briefly as one of the villains (Maury Chaykin), and to serve as the hero he allowed one character, the wife of the ophthalmologist (Julianne Moore), to inexplicably retain her sight, so that she can help everyone find their way around and deal with all of their other problems — a scenario that will surely please blind people just as much as African-Americans enjoy all of those tired stories about African-American high school students who are finally prodded to achieve greatness by an idealistic Caucasian teacher. Again, writers of absurdist fiction don't have to be logical, but they might be asked to display some sensitivity to the feelings of the afflicted. (The filmmakers further earn bonus points for political incorrectness by, in the midst of their international and racially diverse cast, choosing a blond Caucasian woman as the visionary leader.)

Still, even if he offended some blind people in the process, one must acknowledge that Saramago contrives to present his arguments with an evocative power that the film does not match. In the novel, the mental hospital is vividly depicted as a hellishly degraded environment, since a lack of running water and plumbing facilities means that feces and urine are everywhere, along with a ubiquitous stench; the food supplied by the guards is never described and is never enough; the inmates who seize control of the facility and terrorize the others are minimally characterized as utter monsters. Meirelles's film, while remaining faithful to almost every aspect of the novel's plot, cannot bring itself to be as brutal. Except for one scene of a boy (Mitchell Nye) urinating in his pants and one person's feet stepping in feces, there is no effort to convey the fetid squalor of the facility in the novel, and scenes of scattered trash strewn in the hallway do not diminish an overall impression of an acceptable, even decorous place to be incarcerated. The running water keeps flowing, and the food appears ample and appealing, with little pudding cups providing a particularly and incongruously homey touch. The thugs are allowed moments of charm as well as villainy, as when their leader (Gael Garcia Bernal) serenades the compound with a verse of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," a song fittingly written and sung by the blind Stevie Wonder. All in all, filmgoers may feel that these blinded characters are undergoing a horrible ordeal, but compared to what the same characters went through in the novel, their experiences in this film are more like a vacation. As one result, as was not the case in the novel, there is no real feeling of exhilaration when the confined characters discover that the guards have abandoned their posts and they are free to leave, and there is no real contrast between their earlier existence within the compound and their later existence outside of it — there is only more of the same, namely an ongoing struggle to get enough food in competition with other hungry blind people.

While they could tone down the novel's graphic descriptions, the filmmakers faced another special challenge in adapting the novel, and that was somehow having their cinematic storytelling reflect Saramago's unique prose style: long, periodic sentences filled with digressive interruptions; paragraphs that may run on for several pages; occasional breaks in the text but no formal divisions into chapters; characters who are never given names, living in a city whose location is never established; and no use of quotation marks, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish dialogue from characters' thoughts or comments from the narrator. All of these traits combine to place Saramago's readers in a sort of fog, so they must struggle to follow what is being done and said, which in a way helps to convey the sensation of blindness that the characters in this novel are experiencing. Perhaps necessarily, the filmmakers needed to employ cruder devices to achieve this effect of sensory deprivation. The color in the film is consistently muted, to the point that scenes sometimes seem to be in black and white (indeed, while the format is no longer commercially viable, this film might have benefited from being shot in black and white); scenes are sometimes out of focus; to suggest the sea of whiteness that the afflicted people observe, some scenes are whitened as to erase background details, and at times for several seconds the entire screen will be white; yet at other times, like an early sexual encounter or the doctor's wife's descent into a basement, the screen will be entirely dark for a while. (Practical-minded filmgoers might wonder why they are paying good money to sit for periods of time essentially looking at nothing.)

In other ways as well, the film is less subtle than the novel. Now, for reasons already stated, I am not exactly the person one would normally turn to for an analysis of an acknowledged literary masterpiece by a Nobel Prize-winning author, but one recurring theme of Saramago's novel is manifestly the ways in which people are dependent upon words to understand and function in their worlds: characters repeatedly fall back upon lame clichés to explain what is going on, it is noted that one tragic effect of blindness is to eliminate reading, and in an episode late in the book which the film omits, the wandering characters come upon a published writer, who despite his blindness is doggedly carrying on with his profession using a ball-point pen as if to emphasize the crucial importance of writers to human society. No sentiments of this sort can be detected in the film; instead, the filmmakers employ their characters' lack of sight to make points which, if I can be forgiven for saying so, are too blindingly obvious for Saramago to bother with — such as, universal blindness makes racism impossible (a character complains of the compound's Hispanic boss that he does not wish to take orders from an African-American, while unknowingly speaking to an African-American), makes personal modesty ridiculous (characters regularly strip down because they know that nobody can see their naked bodies), and can reverse traditional power relationships (the doctor, previously the dominant figure in his marriage, becomes helplessly subordinate to his wife when he becomes blind and she retains her sight). Saramago's novel is also filled with haunting, poetic statements that may someday appear in somebody's book of quotations (an example: "What is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others"), but far too few of these lines can be found in Don McKellar's otherwise effective script — at times because the film lacks Saramago's wry, knowing narrator (voiceover narratives being another cinematic device now frowned upon by filmmakers), at times because having these ordinary characters spout such profundities might have damaged the aura of realism that the filmmakers were aspiring to (which of course was never a concern of Saramago's).

Even if it doesn't quite live up to the novel that it strives to adapt so faithfully, Blindness remains a remarkable film if only because of its complex pedigree: it is officially a Canada-Brazil-Japan co-production, involving no less than thirteen different production companies; the credits acknowledge a Canadian crew, a Brazilian/Uruguayan crew, a Brazilian crew, and a Japanese crew; it was filmed in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, Canada, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and in Montevideo, Uruguay (while watching the film, you might enjoy speculating as to which scenes were filmed in which locations); and its Brazilian director recruited a Canadian screenwriter and an international cast of actors from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, Brazil, and Japan. The film is dedicated to the late Portuguese literary agent, Ray-Gude Mertin, "whose dedication to literature made this film possible," and who perhaps died prematurely in 2007 due to the stress of putting together the infinitely complicated deal needed to get the film produced. Overall, Blindness is clearly a film that was designed to attract audiences and earn awards all around the world, and such attention to this earnest, well-made adaptation of a masterful novel would hardly be undeserved. Still, the film is not quite a masterpiece because it is so visibly compromised by the filmmakers' desire to achieve commercial success in American theatres, which meant that it could not be as ugly, or as profound, as Saramago's novel. And one must ultimately attribute the problem, ironically, to a lack of vision.

© 2008 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.