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Monday, 29 September 2008

Blindness, 2008 - Movie Review

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Alive Braga, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal, Don McKellar
Running Time: 120 minutes
Score: 5 / 10
This review by debblyst

Being an admirer of Saramago's towering masterpiece and Fernando Meirelles's talent, I went to see "Blindness" with a pure heart but toned-down expectations; we all know how movie adaptations of great literature can be disappointing. But I wasn't prepared for the dismal formal and philosophical nada that is "Blindness" -- it could very well be entitled "Blandness" instead.

The problems start from the opening credits: after the names of a dozen international production companies comes the hype tag "A Very Independent Production". Following this tongue-in-cheek "manifesto", the opening scene -- of the first man turning blind inside his car -- belies it all: it looks alarmingly like an ad for the new Fiat Punto (Fiat is one of the backers, of course). It's a shameless piece of merchandising that immediately distracts you from what's supposed to be a harrowing scene; you pay attention to the car, not the man (excruciatingly played by Yusuke Iseya, in the film's worst performance).

The "very independent production" has more than a share of compromises, such as the terribly contrived Japanese couple, who seem to inhabit another film, with an undue prominence probably there to satisfy the Japanese producers and market. Or the timid, squeezed-in "action" flashes (cars crashing, planes exploding) to satisfy "action" lovers (definitely NOT the public for "Blindness"). Or the rather inexcusable decision to film in English an author (Saramago) who brought new heights to Portuguese-language prose, just to employ American stars and accommodate the international market.

The film never finds a tone -- it falters between the novel's apocalyptic allegory of society's prejudices, cruelty, ridicule and flawed power systems, and an thriller-like thread that has nothing to do with the book's style. Saramago took the idea and politico-philosophical implications from Camus's "La Peste" and made it a haunting literary piece, NOT because of the plot but thanks to his exquisite prose.

It would be easy to blame the film's failure solely on Don McKellar's unimaginative, schematic adaptation that resembles a first draft, riddled with bad dialog and pedestrian ideas, plus a narrator (Danny Glover's character) that confusingly comes in halfway into the film. But the problems are all around: César Charlone's cinematography never transcends the obvious (the blurring "white blindness" finally drains the film of all life; it takes away the visual as well as the emotional edge); Marco Antonio Guimarães's music is abysmally bland; Daniel Rezende (the superb editor of "City of God") never finds a compelling rhythm, alternating hurried scenes with unnecessary longueurs (e.g.the embarrassing "cute dog" sequence). Art director Tulé Peak gets the claustrophobic squalor of the asylum quite right, but the chaotic garbage-filled streets often look suspiciously composed.

The actors seem lost, and that's a shock considering Meirelles's former films (remember how "City of God" had all-around brilliant performances?). Though they're supposed to play stereotypes (doctor, wife, whore, etc), they lack the complex character development that is one of the high points of the novel; we end up caring for no one. Mark Ruffalo, of whining voice, emasculated demeanor and gutless face, looks like a boy who's lost his mammy rather than a dedicated ophthalmologist who slowly sinks into depression by his impotence to help others or himself. Danny Glover plays a beaten one-eyed old man incongruously sporting a supermegawhite Hollywood dental job that renders him impossible to believe in. The Japanese couple are given particularly ludicrous scenes and dialog. Alice Braga has a strong face and sexy attitude, but her character's complexities never surface, especially the nature of her relationships with the young boy and the doctor. Maury Chaykin's repellent character (the man who was already blind before the plague and becomes the meanest s.o.b. of them all) is underwritten and under-explored, and he turns to overacting for attention. Don McKellar's thief is an embarrassment and Sandra Oh's cameo is a waste.

Julianne Moore spends the first half hour repeating her role of the depressed/misunderstood wife in "The Hours". She's never allowed to show bewilderment as to the "why" she's the only one to keep her eyesight, but she's good when she gets into action and has a great final shot, though she could take a break from her de rigueur slow-motion crying scene, with that weird thing she does curling her mouth upside down (my friend said "Oh, no, it's coming!"). The best performance comes from Gael García Bernal playing the amoral, dumb, jackass opportunist: he makes an unbelievable character (how about his rise to power? And gun? And ammo?) come to life -- in his scenes, we recognize Meirelles's naughty, un-PC sense of humor.

Above all, it's Meirelles (director, co-producer and responsible for the final cut) who disappoints, letting his customary highly assertive film-making flounder in hesitation here. Perhaps he felt the burden of having to be faithful to the masterpiece of a Nobel-winner who's still alive. Perhaps he felt crushed by the brooding, gritty material; Meirelles seems rather on the cool nice guy side, and he's best when he can let his irony and humor show (as his films "Domésticas" and "City of God" prove). His sex scenes are REALLY bashful, though, looking more repressed than discreet. The novel's apocalyptic, sarcastic tone would need an aggressive, irrepressible director of wild imagination like Buñuel to do it full justice (the characters' passiveness/impotence recall "Exterminating Angel"). In this our time, Béla Tarr could've made it gloriously bleak; Lars von Trier could've turned it into a shattering, sardonic horror (if he got back into the splendid form of his "The Kingdom"/"Zentropa" days).

"Blindness" is not bad at all; it's just insipid and frustrating. Maybe Meirelles should do next a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian film again, to re-fuel his soul with his own culture, language and themes. Brazilian cinema needs him badly; abroad, he's just one more talented, competent "foreign" director, and these multinational ventures often turn out muddled or impersonal (think Kassovitz, Susanne Bier, Hirschbiegel...). He can do much better, and we deserve much better from him.