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Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Reportedly retooled since its less-than-stellar debut at Cannes, Fernando Meirelles’ third feature is both his loftiest and most intimate. Based on José Saramago’s acclaimed novel of the same name (unread by me),  Blindness is a film it’s impossible to be ambivalent about – Meirelles, along with screenwriter Don McKellar (Last Night, The Red Violin) have constructed a film that is by turns maddening, provocative and confounding in its construction.

When the population becomes stricken with the “white illness,” a disease that turns its victims blind – capable of seeing only blank whiteness – they are forcibly quarantined and kept in facilities where they are forced to fend for themselves. One inhabitant, however (Julianne Moore), appears to be immune to the disease – a secret she keeps to herself and her husband, an optometrist (Mark Ruffalo).
Also in the building: a high-end prostitute (Alice Braga), a thief (McKellar), a bartender with a vicious streak (Gael Garcia Bernal, playing sharply against type), and an older man who was blind before the disease came (Danny Glover, forced to tread into Wise Negro territory with some ill-advised, but thankfully intermittent, narration).

The film’s first act is a complete mess, with many of the initial scenes involving the characters first turning blind inciting guffaws than was certainly intended, and at disastrously distracting cameo by Sandra Oh as a global leader…of some sort. Once we arrive in the compound, however, the film finds a sickening groove as conditions worsen and quickly turn desperate. A sequence involving prostitution for food is dizzying in its torment but artfully staged, all stage-darkness and single-file degradation. Most importantly, the film works hard to retain its characters’ dignity in the face of mounting desperation – even as characters slip on fecal matter and fellate tyrants, there’s never a sense that they’re doing any less than what’s necessary to survive, and as such we never lack sympathy, although we might wish someone would just put them out of their misery.

Meirelles, along with his usual cinematographer César Charlone, opted to depict its titular symptom as literally as possible, filling the film with bright whites and deep blacks as long and as frequently as possible. While the approach works in some respects – it’s certainly disorienting, and works by proxy to highlight its’ stars every pore and bead of sweat as they strain to survive – but its most lasting effect is just that it hurts your eyes. (It’s like the My Bloody Valentine reunion tour, only you bring sunglasses instead of earplugs.) Many will be unable to accept that approach, as well as the almost blatantly allegorical nature of the plot, but I for one found it to be stirring rather than didactic, evoking the best and worst in human impulses, and doing justice to the extremities of both.

Simon Howell

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