Blindness

Tagged: Film

Film (2008). Focus Features International presents an Alliance Films, Fox Filmes do Brasil, GAGA Communications, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Mikado, IFF/CNV, Téléfilm Canada, Ancine and Potboiler Productions production in association with TV Limited, Corus Entertainment, Fiat, BNDES and Cinema Investment with Rhombus Media, O2 Filmes and Bee Vine Pictures. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Written by Don McKellar, adapted from the novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa as Blindness 1997) by José Saramago. Cast includes Alice Braga, Gael García Bernal, Maury Chaykin, Danny Glover, Don McKellar, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. 116 minutes. Colour.

An epidemic of white blindness strikes all but one inhabitant of an unnamed City, who must then come to terms with the responsibilities her sightedness (see Perception) bestows upon her, first to herself and her husband, then to a ward of fellow internees at the city's hospital, and then to the very idea of civilization itself.

"God is truth and light his shadow," wrote Plato (circa 429-347 BCE) in The Republic, a metaphor for the relationship between reality and facticity that laid important foundations for the subsequent growth of scientific enquiry; the famous philosopher's remarks on children's games in Book VII of The Laws is even more revealing of the sinuous and seemingly inexhaustive central allegory of José Saramago's novel Blindness (1995; trans 1997): "The person most highly esteemed by them is the one who introduces new devices in form or colour, or otherwise. There can be no worse evil for a city than this.... Change ... is most dangerous for a city." Another (somewhat less famous) philosopher criticized this reliance of classical epistemology on the idea of fixed and eternal forms – the "contradictorily coherent" centre that does not exist within the structure it is said to support: "Even today the notion of a structure lacking any centre represents the unthinkable itself," said Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) in the lecture La structure, le signe et le jeu le discours des sciences humaines delivered to the International Colloquium on Critical Languages and the Sciences of Man at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, on 21 October 1966 (trans Alan Bass as Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences in Writing and Difference, 1978).

That "libertarian Communist" José Saramago comprehends these modes of thought and their impact on municipal Politics, human Psychology and the capacities of Fantastika to arrange allegory as both realist and revelatory is evident from the first page of his masterpiece. A disquisition on traffic-flow soon gives way to descriptions of the behaviour of light under observation (see Physics) and these and many other explanations of everything-at-once to an analysis of the relationship of Money to Economics and of "rational self-interest" to the Metaphysics of everyday life: "Everything we eat has been stolen from the mouths of others," says the character known only as "The Doctor" (Ruffalo): "If we rob them of too much, we are responsible for their deaths… in a way, we are all murderers." Saramago takes care to distinguish the sudden irruption of his "White Signus" from known varieties of blindness (see Medicine) and thereby to identify it as a "blindness of rationality" on the scale of a Disaster: this is, in other words, the catastrophe of the twentieth century writ large and described in chatty, free-ranging and precise style at the scale of the human, sometimes from the point of view of a particular human being, usually that of "The Doctor's Wife" (Moore), sometimes at the level of the pack of blind humans for whom she is responsible and sometimes, boldly, directly and with no loss of dramatic focus, at the level of humanity's shared past, as "you", the reader, or "we" who are reading this, the world-changing Memes of a variety of thinkers, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) – "What is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others…" – or the critique by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) of the relationship between Identity and self-presence, or, indeed, the assault by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) on the ontology of Western discourse, part of which informed Derrida's interrogation of "rationalist" thinkers and the French philosopher's insistence on Linguistics as the best means of analysis of those cultures that define themselves by contrast with those they consider less "developed", as in: "There's no difference between inside and outside, between here and there, between the many and the few, between inside and outside, between what we're living through and what we shall have to live through." Every aspect of human behaviour is illuminated by the onset of "white" blindness, from the necessary delusions of human relationships to the deep-seated affiliation between fascism and the imposition of Sex on the unwilling: the breakdown of the social contract here reveals what the social contract was obscuring, a form of impaired vision from which we all, to greater or lesser extent, suffer. "It is beginning to emerge that this distinction between nature and society ('nature' and 'culture' seem preferable to us today), while of no historical significance, does contain a logic, fully justifying its use by modern sociology as a methodological tool," Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949 trans James Bell, John von Sturmer and Rodney Needham as The Elementary Structures of Kinship 1969), but Saramago, like Derrida, goes beyond the convenience of this distinction to reveal how deeply human instincts are embedded in culture and now intrinsic cultural definitions are to descriptions of apparently natural behaviours.

What survives of this in the film is contained within the character arc of the Doctor's Wife – indeed, Julianne Moore's performance is what preserves Blindness from being little more than a commentary on the book. Director Fernando Meirelles, who co-directed organized Crime drama City of God (2002) with Kátia Lund, shows great facility for the framing of cityscapes – those here a digitally-augmented amalgam of shots from Toronto, Tokyo, São Paulo and other cities – and for transplanting the composition of famous paintings – the most obvious of these is The Parable of the Blind (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – into the action of the film, but encourages his ensemble cast to embellish their interrelationships, apparently in a misguided attempt to make the existential simplicity of the book's allegory "less cold". The right note is struck by Maury Chaykin as "The Blind Accountant", who, gently, persuasively and with, correspondingly, a much greater degree of moral repugnance, complies first with the aggression of the men from Ward 3 in stockpiling the hospital's supplies of food and then – expressing himself with a kind of faux-chivalric courtesy and pretended concern for the predicament of the victims – with the men's demands that they be allowed to rape the women of Ward 1: this is a far more convincing portrayal of how a crypto-fascist social order might assert itself than "The King of Ward 3" (García Bernal) waving a gun around and shouting. This is one of the scenes from the book that informed Saramago's reluctance to sell the film rights to Hollywood. "I always resisted because it's a violent book about social degradation, rape, and I didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands," Saramago told the Los Angeles Times in January 2008. "Film is all about point of view, and in this film there is none," director Meirelles told The Guardian in August of the same year, and in saying as much perhaps revealed the reason for the adaptation's failure to relay Saramago's all-encompassing societal perspective, or to move beyond what Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) said of allegory in The Statesman's Manual: Or, The Bible, the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight (1816): "An allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses." The advent of Cinema and Television has, however, brought this process of simulation full-circle and Meirelles and screenwriter Don McKellar (who also appears in an actorly capacity as "The Thief") needed to adapt Saramago more confidently in order to fully communicate the scope of his vision. Imitating or exaggerating the actions of the novel's characters proves insufficient.

Other film adaptations about the breakdown of a contemporary or Near Future social order include High-Rise (2016) and Children of Men (2006). [MD]

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