'Blindness'

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Do you suppose an apocalyptic fable would ever possess any lightness or even rogue humor? No, social disintegration and degradation are the order of the day, and Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness," which opened the Festival de Cannes, is no exception.

There is an extraordinary visual plan and considerable cinematic challenges to overcome for the Brazilian filmmaker ("City of God") in adapting Nobel laureate Jose Saramago's 1995 novel to the screen, so there is much here to quicken the pulse and engage the mind. "Blindness" is provocative cinema. But it also is predictable cinema: It startles but does not surprise.

An appreciative critical response will be needed stateside for Miramax to market this Brazil-Canada-Uruguay co-production. Other territories might benefit from the casting of an array of international actors with boxoffice draw.

The script by Don McKellar bears witness to a mysterious plague of blindness, a "white" disease in which people's eyes suddenly see only white light. As a cosmopolitan city struggles to cope with the horrifying fallout, a panicked government orders the immediate quarantine of those infected. The herding of shunned people into prisonlike camps clearly provokes images of any number of 20th century atrocities.

The film follows a few characters into a filthy, poorly equipped asylum where social order swiftly breaks down into gang conflict between republicans and royalists, between democracy and dictatorship. The republicans have a ringer, though. The wife (Julianne Moore) of a doctor (Mark Ruffalo) — an eye doctor in a deliberate irony — actually can see but tells no one.

As in "Lord of the Flies" or even "Animal Farm," the order that establishes itself is elitist, corrupt and lethal. A bartender (Gael Garcia Bernal) in the next ward soon is demanding valuables, then sexual favors for the distribution of the food, which he unaccountably controls. His ringer is a nasty old man (Maury Chaykin), blind from birth, who knows how to navigate in the world of sightlessness.

First comes acquiescence by the other wards, then rapes, murders and finally rebellion. Only then do the prisoners discover that the guards have long disappeared. The entire world is caught in the throes of this plague. The ragged survivors stumble into a city of starvation and brutality.

Meirelles bathes the screen in white overexposure and a blurriness to convey the terrifying sense of dislocation and fear. You see the characters — and the disgusting filth they do not — yet feel their helplessness when the screen jars or distorts your vision.

For this part, McKellar creates two points of view — initially that of the sighted wife, who tries to create order without giving away her ability to see, then switching occasionally to a man with an eye patch (Danny Glover), whose philosophical commentary on metaphorical blindness expresses an authorial point of view.

One considerable problem with the first viewpoint is the character's slowness to act. She easily could have prevented any number of murders and rapes. Her failure marks an inexplicable failure of nerves and morals that warps this not always convincing fable. And Glover's intellectual postures amid such physical distress come off as pompous, perhaps cruelly so.

This philosophical coolness is what most undermines the emotional response to Meirelles' film. His fictional calculations are all so precise, and a tone of deadly seriousness swamps the grim action. (Only a Stevie Wonder song and a line about volunteers raising their hands draws laughs.) Even the eventual lifting of the state of siege, while a welcome ending, has the arbitrariness of an author who has made his point and simply wants to sign off.

Removing a fable from the comfort of the printed page to the photo-reality of film can sometimes lead to its own kind of blindness. (partialdiff)
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