It is a truth universally acknowledged that some of the greatest novels ever written will not make great, or even good, films. Whether it’s because the novel itself is a work that resists cinematic adaptation for a variety of reasons (too interior, too sprawling, etc.) or the assigned director and/or screenwriter is simply not up to the task, there are plenty of brilliant works of literature that will never make memorable cinema. In the case of Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, the film fails on both counts, because the source material doesn’t easily lend itself to cinema and also because the filmmaker is clearly out of his depth.
Unlike many of the recent apocalypse scenarios that have flooded theaters of late—can we go a month without seeing Manhattan annihilated or emptied of human life? Would that be possible?—Blindness is more about the slow and steady stripping away of civilization’s veneer than the rendering of a single catastrophic event and its aftermath. Without any explanation or warning, the inhabitants of a large, unnamed city start to go blind. Since there seems to be some contagious aspect to the spreading affliction, the government swiftly reacts to quarantine victims. A motley assortment of the blind (including one woman who can still see but pretends blindness in order to not be separated from her husband) are thrown into an abandoned hospital surrounded by armed guards. As the problem reaches pandemic proportions outside the hospital, inside the situation deteriorates as more and more victims are trucked in, and a newer, more primitive social order takes over.
Saramago’s 1995 novel (which was a big step towards gaining him the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature) was told as a fable whose point was never entirely clear. The blindness that overtakes its characters is described as a sort of milky whiteness and is weighted with allegorical overtones. Those shadings were exacerbated by Saramago keeping the setting deliberately vague (it could be any country, anywhere, anytime) and not giving any of his characters names, instead labeling them with monikers like The Doctor, The Woman With Dark Glasses, and The King of Ward Three. It was an approach that verged on the pretentious but worked in the end due to Saramago’s incisive grasp of his characters and the story’s pervasive empathy.
What works so effectively on the printed page is much more difficult to pull off on screen, particularly when it comes to the allegorical, and on that level Mereilles’ film almost completely misfires. The settings are impressively universal, with city scenes shot in Sao Paolo and Montevideo that look like they could be just about anywhere (save for the palm trees). But while cast is an appropriate melange of ethnicities and accents, having two actors who speak most of their lines in Japanese (everybody else converses in English) as The First Blind Man and his wife (Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura) breaks the illusion of uniformity right from the start. Perhaps due to the fact that Saramago never wanted to spell out his points in the novel, the film is left somewhat adrift, having achieved the generic look of the allegory without providing any of the substance.
In his previous, brilliant, two films (City of God, The Constant Gardener), Mereilles has shown himself to be a pulp filmmaker with aspirations to the artistic. In Blindness, both of these temperaments collide with unfortunate results. There are stretches here of nearly unbearable conflict, filmed with an assaultive clamor, from the opening sequence where the First Blind Man loses his sight while driving in a snarling traffic jam, to the horrors that take place in the hospital once the blind in one ward take over distribution of the food and demand unspeakable prices. These uneasily coexist with quieter scenes where the characters (literally) fumble through their environment and try to parse a new world order where everybody (save one) is without sight.
For all their lightning talent, Mereilles and screenwriter Don McKellar (who also turns in an effective performance as The Thief, who tellingly steals the First Blind Man’s car) are not able to achieve the impressive empathy of Saramago’s prose. It’s hard to say exactly why, particularly when considering what an impressive job Julianne Moore does here as The Doctor’s Wife (who has retained her sight), functioning as the audience’s eyes for the steadily increasing filth and chaos that piles up unseen around the shuffling blind.
As an actress, Moore has practically cornered the market on steely determination and carries as much of the film as she can with her fierce and hollow-eyed countenance. As her somewhat feckless husband, Mark Ruffalo (whose performances all blur together as the years go on) is much less commanding. But Gael Garcia Bernal brings energy and wit to spare to his portrayal of the King of Ward Three; almost too much so, he plays the tinpot despot with such relish that he nearly overshadows the meeker blind. And it isn’t Danny Glover’s fault that his character (Man With Black Eye Patch) is used so clumsily to provide voiceover exposition that just further distracts from the relationships that should have been the core of the story but are dealt with here at a cool remove.
Since this is a story about social degradation, if the relationships between characters aren’t carefully dissected from the beginning then the rest will simply not cohere. With the filmmakers having distanced themselves from their characters, the empathy that was so palpable in the book is now hard to discern. If Blindness were just another zombie film where an intrepid band of survivors must navigate an increasingly savage landscape, this wouldn’t be an issue. There are certainly a number of scenes that pack the wallop of the novel, particularly one in which The Doctor’s Wife, laden with bags of scavenged food, tries to make it out of a looted supermarket crawling with the starving blind who can sense that she has something of value. But the film for the most part frustratingly resists the audience’s concern, a strange development from Mereilles, who has previously created such powerfully emotive works in the past.
It’s not to say that Blindness couldn’t and shouldn’t have been effectively filmed, just that there are few filmmakers alive today who are up to the task. A story of quiet savagery, there is something in Saramago’s text that is resolutely timeless and anti-modern, a quality that some of the great directors of the mid-century would have understood. No slight on Mereilles, but this was a book that demanded a Bergman or a Tarkovsky, the likes of whom are few and far between these days.