Thursday, May 15, 2008


There is something pleasingly off-kilter about the film Blindness opening the Cannes Films Festival. The glorious sun of southern France bathing the glamorous and glittery people next to the shining waters of the Mediterranean before everyone troops into the dark of the theatre to see a bleak film about the thin veneer of modern civilization giving way so very easily.
Even the film's director, Brazillian Fernando Meirelles has remarked that opening Cannes is an honour, bien sur, but "I still don't think this is the best film to open a festival. It's a harsh story. But it's a beautiful film." And star Julianne Moore noted it was "kind of odd."

The film is based on the 1997 [English] / 1995 [Portuguese] novel by Jose Saramago. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, Saramago has the reputation of a prickly pear - he remains a staunch Portuguese Stalinist! Several filmmakers interested in the book were turned away until he accepted the offer of a Canadian-Brazilian-Japanese co-production.
Here's what Kirkus Reviews noted in 1998:
The embattled relationships among the people of a city mysteriously struck by an epidemic of blindness form the core of this superb novel .... A driver stalled at a busy intersection suddenly suffers an attack of "white blindness". The "false Samaritan" who helps him home and then steals his car is the next victim. A busy ophthalmologist follows, then two of his patients. And on it goes, until the city's afflicted blind are "quarantined" in an unused mental ward; the guards ensuring their incarceration panic and begin to shoot; and a paternalistic "Ministry" runs out of strategies to oversee "an uprooted, exhausted world" in a state of escalating chaos .... Blindness never feels like a lesson, thanks to Saramago's mastery of plot, urbane narration, and resourceful characterizations. All the people are nameless ("the girl with the dark glasses," "the boy with the squint"), but we learn an enormous amount about them, and the central figure--the ophthalmologist's wife, who pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband--is triumphantly employed as both viewpoint character and "the leader of the blind." Echoes of Orwell's 1984 and images hinting at Holocaust experiences enrich the texture of a brilliant allegory that may be as revolutionary in its own way and time as were, say, The Trial and The Plague in theirs. Another masterpiece.
Sadly, the initial reviews of the film version are pretty dismal. With a Canadian producer and writer (Don McKellar), filmed partially in Toronto, with some Canadian actors (Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin) the film has been described as a Canadian film. But if the reviews continue in this vein perhaps we'll blame the Brazilian director and call it a Brazilian film!
Regardless, pick up the book, which is excellent. It isn't an easy read as there is little punctuation, paragraphs and the characters aren't named. But it is worth the effort.


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