Sunday, October 05, 2008


Why is it that allegories are so much more effective in literature than in film? One wouldn't think that film would be knocked out of the equation as a vessel. Why can't an image be representational in the way prose can? The answer is that it can, but it's just much trickier to achieve. We process images in a way that represents surface and reality (even though we know that images can be falsified) but what we read, we understand as manipulated by the author. We experience it through a filter and it allows us a lot of room to project. It's easier for an idea to flower in writing than take root in imagery. Or that's my on-the-spot take on it at any rate.

Which brings us to Blindness...

Celebrated auteur Fernando Meirelles set himself the daunting task of adapting a difficult flexible novel. Blindness the novel is told in omniscient narrator fashion with no punctuation, no character names, no traditionally conveyed dialogue and a big inescapable allegory as central driving force, plot, worldview. In the novel the world is struck by "the white sickness." Eyes everywhere start failing, vision milking over with nothing but whiteness. In movie terms that's a fade-to-white. Meirelles puts it in movie terms ... a lot.

Among the first victims is an eye doctor played by the always welcome Mark Ruffalo (still searching for a role equal to his breakout bid in You Can Count on Me). His wife (Julianne Moore), still blessed with perfect vision, accompanies him to the government mandated containment facility under the pretense that she too has succumbed to the sickness. Her instincts to protect her husband prove solid. The blind, as it turns out, are practically abandoned once they're caged. All Lord of the Flies style hell breaks loose.

Julianne Moore has spent 2008 returning to the auteurial drama she is most suited for (see also: Savage Grace) and moviegoers are better off for it.
Highlights from the ensemble cast include a moving Danny Glover and a memorably wicked Gael Garcia Bernal. Everyone aboard seems game for the brutal material. True to the novel no characters are given names but since the film is not overtly stylized elsewhere or in dialogue this device feels illogical and, well, straight up weird in this new context. People meeting and introducing themselves only by profession after society is breaking down? Hard to fathom.

Moore, referred to only as "the doctor's wife", is a steadying seeing-eye presence for the afflicted souls in the movie and for the audience, too. She's solid in what's a subtle and difficult role but the director leans so heavily on her capacity for internal drama that he almost smothers her. We're left with only her numbed face and weary gait to convey what the film is so curiously shy about. Much of the book's horrific power came from the descriptions of the animalistic living conditions that the blind begin to live with. Meirelles opts to mostly look away from the nudity (who would wear dirty clothes for weeks on end when everyone is blind?) and he's particularly shy with the prison act. The cool desaturated palette chosen effectively hides the very off-putting but necessary horror that the novel achieved.
That was surely a practical decision --who, outside of early John Waters thespians, wants to get too equated with shit (or piss) in a movie theater? -- but as a result the prison looks messy and cluttered rather than truly harrowing. For a movie that understands how to convey complete confinement and humans-as-animals terror you'll have to wait for Steve McQueen's daring aggressive Hunger in 2009. Blindness is often beautifully stylized in its cinematography but beauty and this story aren't the most complimentary match.

The novel by José Saramago is a heavy allegorical classic about our collective inability to see. It is not actually about the fact that some people are disabled and have no visual or form light perception. The film version of this great novel, while admirably serious and surprisingly faithful, just doesn't let in as much light. In the realm of surface storytelling it's solid but it falls short thematically and loses much of its depth. Blindness does try and capture something of the novel's grace. Meirelles and his cinematographer César Charlone seem to loosen up in the story's final post-prison act. It's as if the open air let's down their guard sufficently. Once there's promise of a fuller range of human experience they allow themselves to look more closely at the continued horror in the margins and with less stylistic strain.

Blindness's source material is strong and the concerted effort from the cast keep you rapt to the unusual story but it finally feels a little flat. The book remains a much richer and more vividly imaginative work. It's a mark of a movie's failure if you can shake it off quickly after the credits roll. Great comedies can leave you giggling or smiling for days afterwards rather than vanishing from memory. Great horror can have you checking under your bed or sleeping with the lights on. Great dramas can wrestle thought for days. A week after seeing Blindness the only thought it provoked in yours truly was this 'Can the movie version of The Road more successfully transfer apocalyptic literature to the screen?' B-/C+


Anonymous said...

that's a very well-written review. I still want to see the movie, Julianne Moore alone is enough for me, haha.

Anonymous said...

Moore is much better in this than in Savage Grace... I hated the movie.. although I enjoyed the book. The movie seemed extremely amateurish to me. I hope Moore will select better scripts in the future. She deserves better.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a B-

So could Moore get an Oscar nomination for this one? Is she back on track at least? Is this one of her great performances?


i don't think an oscar nom is in the cards for this one. it's somewhere in the middle of her pack of performances.

but the film isn't strong enough to sustain her all hte way to nominations with so many other headliners in play with showier roles

Catherine said...

I'm kind of disapointed by your lackustre response, but not wholly surprised. The book is so...harrowing that I really didn't think a film could adequately compare. Ah, well.

Great review, btw.

Glendon said...

Blindness...Babel... my gut feeling is that the former was produced to bank on the audience of the latter. I only know the basic details of Blindness, so I can't make direct comparisons besides the themes of losing a sense and Gael Garcia Bernal.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

When I saw Blindness, I was actually thinking about the silliness of having the characters remain unnamed and how it was a device that didn't really work. It's kind of like how they had the credits spoken in the old Fahrenheit 451 movie. Yeah, I get it. But that doesn't mean it works. I think the film is (at best) an interesting but ultimately failed experiment. If you're going to adapt a novel like "Blindness" have the balls to do it properly.

I think a better movie exists about the husband and wife Moore and Ruffalo were playing at the beginning of the movie. About how there's strife and masked anguish beneath Moore's bumbling hausfrau and Ruffalo's settled masculinity. We all know that Moore does marital tension very well. Wasn't there just a hint of seething condescension when the doctor was responding to his wife's query about the etymology of the word "agnostic?" I love it. Moore was so fun for those seven or so minutes.



you're absolutely right about that. I had high hopes during that sequence that both actors had really thought long and hard about their backstory but the film needs so much else from her that it seems to skimp on developing that. The moment -- from the book -- of her seeing him having sex with someone else should play a lot more raw than it ends up playing I think... partially because the film shies away from showing so often.

Joe Reid said...

It's kind of funny that Roger Ebert didn't like the movie because it was so unpleasant and you didn't like it because it wasn't unpleasant enough. I actually liked it, quite a bit. I thought it was faithful to the book far more than I expected it to be, I thought Julianne was compelling and ferocious in a way I don't recall her being in a long time (the way she barked at the people approaching her storefront), and Gael Garcia Bernal brought a lot to a role that was one-dimensional on the page.

As for the fades-to-white...I don't know how you avoid those in this kind of a movie. And I thought Mierelles mixed up the visual cues more than you're giving him credit for. I don't think it blew me away, but after reading the avalanche of bad reviews before seeing it, I'm at a bit of a loss to understand the universal panning.


well i'm surprised by the low amount of positive reviews too. It's not THAT bad ;)

I don't think the fade to whites could be avoided either but i do think it was too "chic" maybe i watch project runway too much. The cinematography was so pretty.

of course i did see this in close proximation to HUNGER and perhaps it suffered in comparison since both have people cooped up in unsanitary environs and one scared the hell out of me and one did not. and i feel like Blindness should have been a horror.

It's right on the line for me between see it: B- and wait for video if you're interested: C+ ;)

The Pretentious Know it All said...


It's not that it was "not unpleasant enough." I'm not sure I would ever buy that analysis, though it'd make an interesting argument.

To me, I point to the first scene in which the women offer themselves up in exchange for food. The "rape" is so obscured. Meirelles doesn't want to show it, but we hear it and the cinematography is so jarring, unnecessarily so. To me, this scene was viscerally more difficult to watch than the rape scene in "Irreversible." Anyone who knows what I'm talking about knows how much that is saying...

So I guess, it's unpleasant in all but not in the right ways...Just playing devil's advocate here.

James Hansen said...

Too bad about this's getting panned by pretty much everyone. I have BIG reservations about "The Road" although without even a trailer (wtf?) it's hard to say too much. I haven't read Blindness but I did read The Road and I just don't think its adaptable for a major audience. I mean, I love "Gerry" and all, which seems like the same thing as "The Road" except add an apocalpyse and father/son instead of friends (brothers?'s been too long). Maybe Van Sant or Malick could make it successful, but I;m a major doubter as of now.

Anonymous said...

Damn, and I ADORED "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener". What happened to the brilliance of Fernando Meirelles in those films? I haven't heard a good thing about this film, and with this director, the great source material, and the stellar cast, this should have been a winner. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you connect this failure of adaptation to the potential success of THE ROAD. It's true, that would be a hard book to get right. I wouldn't think it would be too hard for the man who made THE PROPOSITION, but it could be less than the sum of the visually-equivalent parts.

- The Opinionated Australian

Glenn said...

Considering The Proposition was such a bleak and physically desolate picture, I'm sure John Hillcoat was a more than suitable choice.

Anonymous said...

Possible Spoiler:

This movie was too stupid, the characters didn't make sense within the story. If you have a prison with both men and women, it's to be expected that somebody will get beat or raped sooner or later. The good guys should have taken out the lunatics way before the Dr's wife finally did it.

In addition, why didn't they realize that the guards were gone sooner? During the movie I decided to close my eyes so as to experience it through sound and it still was terrible. One of the worst movies of the year.

Anonymous said...

Good review Nathaniel. I agreed with almost everything you wrote but nevertheless I liked the film a bit more than you did. I'd give it a B+/A-

I thought it did a good job of interpreting the novel and especially admired the cinematography and editing. I was riveted by seeing images I'd only imagined. I don't see any acting nominations though.

You are right, this type of novel is a challenge to bring to the screen. The Road could have an even more difficult task.

david m

Steolicious said...

I was so disapointed because the story works so much better in the book. But Moore was good.