Gael Garcia Bernal
Imagine you suddenly lost your sight - as if a murky fog had suddenly descended around you, shrouding your familiar world in an impenetrable whiteness. Then imagine everyone around you began suffering the same fate. This is the distressing premise behind director Fernando Meirelles' follow-up to the award-laden The Constant Gardener, based on the novel by Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago.
It's an impressive creative pedigree, and, coupled with a superb cast and a less-than subtle political message, the film was expected to exit its Cannes premier garlanded with hyperbolic talk of Oscar nominations. However, reaction to the film has been at best muted, and at worst, downright hostile. Critics took great pains to pan Meirelles' unremittingly grim vision of a world thrown into chaos, and his apparent desperation to deliver a message to the film's arthouse target audience (most of whom, you would hope, could spot a clunky metaphor from a mile off).
True, the film is a deliberately alienating experience. Right from the beginning, we are thrown into a film where no characters have names, no one is very likeable and the both the disease and the city they inhabit goes completely unidentified (and unidentifiable - the filming took place in both the US and in Brazil, giving an odd, disjointed feel to proceedings). In a bravura opening, a man suddenly goes blind behind the wheel at a set of traffic lights. After an initially kindly stranger takes him home, then steals his car, we track the unexplainable virus through the city's night, infecting a prostitute, a child, and finally an eye specialist, played by Mark Ruffalo, whose wife, played by Julianne Moore, seems impervious to the disease.
It's ground that's been covered many times before, by the likes of the Day of the Triffids and 28 Weeks Later, but there is a panache to his storytelling that makes it feel more like screenwriter Don McKeller's (who incidentally appears here as the thief) excellent low-fi disaster flick Last Night. That said, the focus is less I Am Legend-style post-apocalypse and more concentration-camp misery.
In a quick barrage of scenes, the government act decisively to limit the spread of the contagion, rounding up the carriers and locking them in a disused hospital, where, away from the eyes of the authorities, anarchy quickly sets in. We see this through the eyes of Moore, who, unbeknown to the other captives, still has her sight. What follows is a grim decent into madness - rape, murder and food racketeering are all allowed to take place by these social pariahs before, in the final third of the film, we find out why the outside world has been so strangely quiet.
Meirelles effectively marries the kinetic visual flair of his breakthrough hit City of God with the more stately emotion of The Constant Gardener. Stylistically, Blindness is as gritty as its premise - the colours are bleached out, and the intense squalor of the prison is depicted without any of the hushed beauty of the similarly-captive Hunger.
The Brazilian director has also taken a good stab at the near-impossible task of visualising blindness on celluloid - the opening third of the film, as characters begin to lose their sight is especially effective, with camera flares on car windshields whiteing out and disorientating the viewer. However, the director's inventiveness often only serves to distract from the real meaning of the film - the speed at which civilised society can turn on itself - and serves to lessen the impact, leaving the film resorting to shock-tactics with a barrage of distressing images. (And be warned, some of these are very distressing indeed: it can be hard at times to keep one's eyes open.)
Of the actors, Julianne Moore gives a standout performance as the unnamed woman who is forced to become the disparate group's saviour, although she spends most of the film in a emotional fog of her own - cleaning up after Mark Ruffalo's frankly useless husband. Gael Garcia Bernal throws everything he has into a small but pivotal role - that of the psychopathic ruler of rival ward three, who exploits the situation, while the real scene stealer is Maury Chaykin's shuffling, predatory accountant who imbues every moment he is on screen with an almost pantomime villainy. An unneeded Shawshank-style voice-over from Danny Glover's blind bluesman helps to torpedo any subtlety in the film's quieter moments, while most of the other characters quickly become interchangeable archetypes.
Blindness isn't half as clever as it thinks it is, but it still packs a hell of a punch, especially as the evil clan of ward three begin to exert control over their more socially responsible colleagues. There are also neat, if heavy, allegories towards Iraq and Abu Ghraib in the prisoner's panicked desperation, but too often you get the impression that Merielles becomes lost in creating a world, and not enough time living in it.