Author José Saramago’s decision to protect the rights to his 1998 Nobel Prize winning novel was a rare and brave gesture. Just because you’ve been garlanded with awards and praise does not mean that financial security is a given – and when Hollywood comes calling who doesn’t hear cash registers ringing?
However, in waiting for the ‘right’ team of filmmakers to call, Saramago finds the project equally cursed and blessed. Yes, director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and writer Don McKellar have approached this intense, evocative and very human story with reverence for the original artistic vision but there’s also a sense of not wanting to create untidiness, or to toy with the conventions of the story.
To be fair the narrative is a particularly hard one to navigate, after all, this is a tale where an unnamed driver in the middle of an unnamed city goes blind, for no apparent reason. One by one the people who come in contact with him also lose their sight; there’s the thief who attempts to steal the man’s car (played by screenwriter Don McKellar), the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who treats him, and the doctor’s devoted wife (Julianne Moore); then there are patients from the doctor’s surgery, including Danny Glover’s ‘The Man With The Black Eye Patch’ and Alice Braga as ‘The Women With Dark Glasses’.
Soon the blindness, which is characterised onscreen as a milky white, instead of the black you might assume it would be, has become an epidemic the state doesn’t know how to combat – other than rounding up casualties and depositing them in municipal facilities. This is how the doctor and his acolytes arrive at the disused asylum that becomes their prison; and it’s a prison that quickly takes on a Lord of the Flies-style survival of the fittest. The doctor has one key advantage, his wife has faked her blindness in order to be with him, and what she ends up seeing adds a deep profundity to this morality fable.
Of the many intelligently judged elements, Meirelles’ strongest is in avoiding an obvious location or cityscape for the film. This isn’t London, New York or Rome; it could be any major city, and it’s refreshing to have conventional visual references removed. There’s also a wealth of beautifully crafted performances, especially from Ruffalo and Moore, as they are forced to evaluate and renegotiate their relationship, as well as genuine feelings of dread, panic, paranoia and revulsion as the epidemic turns society in on itself.
The sour note comes not because the film is overly serious or even pretentious but it’s that hint of dullness, or even drabness, that can creep over something clever and well intentioned: and that is a rather earnest worthiness.