Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re trying to bring Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness back from the dead.
Dir: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal
IMDb rating: 6.6
Metacritic rating: 45
Released to rave reviews initially, Fernando Meirelles’s respectable film, The Constant Gardener has turned out to be just that: respectable, but not particularly memorable. It’s a problem with certain films, their refusal to last. But more interesting are the films that linger despite a frosty contemporaneous reception. In hindsight, it’s memories of Meirelles’s poorly-received follow-up to The Constant Gardener – Blindness – that can’t be scrubbed away. Provocative yet frustrating in its stodgy moralising, but photographed immaculately and soaked with dread, Meirelles’s fifth can’t be forgotten.
Blindness continuously tests the viewer – Meirelles toys with the visuals until we can no longer trust what we’re seeing
Based on Jose Saramago’s allegorical sci-fi novel, Blindness is a Hollywood disaster movie with a twist: everything starts out grim and just gets worse from there. As the world’s population inexplicably begins to lose its sight, an American couple (Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore) are placed in an isolation camp to contain the outbreak, him one of the many newly-blind, her seemingly the only one immune to the disease. Meirelles argues that such a situation would see everything go monumentally to the dogs, as an opportunistic bartender (a supremely nasty Gael Garcia Bernal) takes control of the camp, hoards the food and starts using the women as his sex slaves.
Blindness is a wretched, fiery attack on the audience. For this visual medium, Meirelles perversely made a film in which all but one of the characters is blind. In communicating that idea, he toys with us until we can no longer trust what we’re seeing: Meirelles shoots a location like a house of mirrors, with tricky reflections and bleached-out light; objects are frequently out of focus or placed in such close-up that we can’t tell what it is we’re looking at; and characters bump into items of furniture that previously weren’t on-screen. A film about endurance, Blindness continuously tests the viewer. After the quiet, sobering Constant Gardener, the director seems to want to make his audience feel something.
If the challenging visual approach echoes Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Enter the Void, then so does the content. Dialling the sense of hopelessness up past Children of Men-levels into some nihilistic stratosphere, Blindness makes bullying, sexual humiliation and casual murder the order of the day. As the whole world turns blind, barbarity kicks in: the helpless sightless are abandoned by their government to an adult re-enactment of Lord of the Flies, forced to exchange use of their bodies for food and cohabit with piles of their own shit. Meirelles pushes to the extreme what he can do in a ‘mainstream’ production.
Blindness has ambition where most movies don’t, and a daring that filmmakers rarely get to flaunt
The initial repeated criticism, that the film is missing a ‘point’ – that still stands. Blindness is an unwaveringly cynical look at the human race, as though it was made by a propagandist from the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Maybe Meirelles was tired of audiences enjoying his films and just wanted to go through with an experiment to make cinema-goers repulsed at themselves. But for me, films that endure are the ones that hit hard, that carry weight in ideas and stylistic innovation, even if neither are executed with perfection. Aesthetically, Blindness is astounding; thematically, its purpose is uncertain. But it has ambition where most movies don’t, a uniquely bleak mood and a daring that filmmakers rarely get to flaunt.
It makes this year’s Only God Forgives a companion piece in that sense. Nicolas Winding Refn’s LSD-spiked, martial arts nightmare was, quite clearly, made entirely for himself. It was extreme, odd and highly individual. But Only God Forgives was so deep-rooted in the personal that, like Blindness, the film remains potent. Directors may only get one film in their career – fascinating gems both wildly out of control and irradiated with invention – on which they’re given the chance to wholeheartedly indulge their ‘vision,’ without giving much of a damn about what the audience might think. Blindness is Fernando Meirelles’s.
All images: Focus Features/Miramax