As an admirer of Saramago's masterpiece and Fernando Meirelles's exciting talent, I went to see "Blindness" with a pure heart but modest expectations; we all know how movie adaptations of great literature can be disappointing. But I wasn't prepared for the formal and philosophical nada that is "Blindness" -- it could very well be entitled "Blandness" instead.
The problems start from the opening credits: after the names of a dozen international production companies comes the hype tag "A Very Independent Production". Following this tongue-in-cheek "manifesto", the opening scene -- of the first man turning blind inside his car -- belies it all: it looks alarmingly like an ad for the new Fiat Punto (Fiat is one of the film's backers). It's a shameless piece of merchandise placement that immediately distracts you from what's supposed to be a harrowing scene; you pay attention to the car, not the man (excruciatingly played by Yusuke Iseya, in the film's worst performance).
The "very independent production" has more than a share of compromises, including the terribly contrived Japanese couple, who seem to belong to another film, and who are there to satisfy the Japanese co-producers and market. Or the timid, squeezed-in "action" flashes (cars crashing, planes exploding) to satisfy "action" lovers (NOT the public for "Blindness"). Or the debatable decision to film in English an author who brought new heights to Portuguese-language prose, in order to employ American stars and accommodate the international market.
Worst of all, we know now that Meirelles decided to re-cut the film six times since Cannes, after test audiences were "disgusted" with "graphic" scenes. Now, how can you keep your vision (oops) trying to please everybody? Can't. The film never finds a tone, wavering between the novel's apocalyptic, sarcastic allegory of society's prejudices, cruelty, ridicule and flawed power systems, and clumsy attempts to insert sci-fi thriller touches and invest on "plot". Well, Saramago's novel is a masterpiece NOT because of the plot but for the exquisite prose and caustic politico-philosophical insights.
It would be easy to blame the film's failure solely on Don McKellar's schematic adaptation that resembles a first draft, riddled with bad dialog and pedestrian ideas, plus a narrator (Danny Glover's character) that confusingly comes in halfway into the film. But the problems are all around: Cesar Charlone's visual gimmicks soon get tiresome (the blurring "white blindness" ultimately drains the film of all life; it takes away the visual as well as the emotional edge); Marco Antonio Guimaraes's music is abysmally bland; Daniel Rezende (the superb editor of "City of God") never finds a compelling rhythm, alternating chopped scenes with unnecessary longueurs (e.g.the embarrassing "cute dog" sequence). Art director Tule Peak nails the claustrophobic squalor of the quarantine facility, but the garbage-filled streets often look suspiciously composed.
The actors seem lost, and that's a shock considering Meirelles's former films (remember how "City of God" had all-around brilliant performances?). Though they're supposed to play stereotypes (doctor, wife, whore, etc), they lack the transformations that are the crux of the novel -- how they work out their humanity in extreme mondo cane conditions. Mark Ruffalo, of whining voice and gutless face, looks like a boy who's lost his mommy rather than a dedicated ophthalmologist who slowly sinks into depression because he's impotent to help others or himself. Danny Glover plays a weather-beaten one-eyed old man incongruously sporting a supermegawhite Beverly Hills dental job that renders him impossible to believe in. The Japanese couple struggle with ludicrous scenes and dialog. Alice Braga is strong and sexy, but her character's complexities never surface, especially the nature of her relationships with the young boy and the doctor. Maury Chaykin's repellent character is underwritten and under-explored, and he turns to overacting for attention. Don McKellar's thief is an embarrassment and Sandra Oh's cameo is a waste.
Julianne Moore spends the first half hour repeating her role of the depressed/misunderstood wife in "The Hours" (cake-baking included). She fails to convey the bewilderment as to the "why" she's the only one to keep her eyesight, but she's good when she gets into action, though she could take a break from her de rigueur slow-motion crying scene, with that weird thing she does curling her mouth upside down (my friend said "Oh, no, it's coming!"). The best performance comes from Gael Garcia Bernal playing the amoral, jackass opportunist: he makes the most unbelievable character (how about his rise to power? And gun? And ammo?) come to life -- in his scenes, we recognize Meirelles's naughty, un-PC sense of humor.
Above all, it's Meirelles (director, co-producer and responsible for the final cut) who disappoints; his customary assertive film-making flounders in hesitation here. Perhaps he felt the burden of trying to remain too faithful to the novel of a Nobel-winner who's still alive. Perhaps he felt crushed by the brooding material; Meirelles is best when he can let irony and humor show (as in "Domesticas" and "City of God"). Though some people complain about the "graphic" sex/rape scenes, they're actually almost bashful (at least after the re-cuts). The novel's corrosiveness asked for an uncompromising, irrepressible director of Bunuel's lineage -- if there was one -- to do it full justice (the characters' passiveness/impotence recall "Exterminating Angel"). In this our time, Bela Tarr could've made it gloriously bleak; Lars von Trier could've turned it into a shattering, sardonic horror, if he got back into his splendid "Kingdom"/"Zentropa" shape.
"Blindness" is not bad at all -- it's just insipid and frustrating. Maybe Meirelles should do next a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian film again and re-fuel his soul with his own culture, language and themes. Brazilian cinema needs him badly; abroad, he's just one more talented, competent "foreign" director, and these multinational ventures often turn out muddled or impersonal (think Kassovitz, Susanne Bier, Hirschbiegel...). He can do much better, and we deserve much better from him.