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I Once Was

I Once Was

by Nathan Zeno / 14.05.2009

Brilliant books seldom make for brilliant films. Written by José Saramago, “Blindness” is the kind of singular reading experience that requires the readers’ imagination to film in the gaps. Not only are city and place names left out, so are the characters and the key identifiers, the place that Blindness takes place in is everyplace and it’s people are everypeople. The horrors in the book are emotional and universal and they are also obviously metaphorical. In this instance “Blindness” is up there with “The Plague” as one of the great disease/segregation novels of all time. Why then, I bemoaned, would they try making it into a film. They could not possibly succeed in bringing these elements to a visual medium.

As an adaptation “Blindness” is a success, not a Kubrick’s “Lolita” kind of success, where the director admits the film is inadaptable and comes at the story from a different angle, but a success in terms of the way Meirelles uses film to explore in a visual way those previously seemingly metaphorical avenues.

There are many elements in the novel that any entertainment director could highlight into cheap horror but Meirelles (No stranger to the adaptation genre, his “The Constant Gardener”, a John Le Carre adaptation is also superb) manages to draw out all the elements of the book that make that book such an intense and, at times, almost repulsive experience. Following the multiple stories of a man who goes blind spontaneously, the Samaritan who steals his car, his optometrist, the assistant, the boy who visits the optometrist after the blind man, all of whom go blind, all of whom are then quarantined in an abandoned hospital and guarded at gun point. The only sighted people in the main story are the government officials on television, the armed guards at the fences to keep them in and the optometrist’s wife, who is the only person not subject to infection and sneaks herself in. Why this is, is not necessary to explore.

What is explored is her husbands fear at this being discovered, for he depends on her, but this dependence leads to him feeling less like a husband and more like a child. This in turn leads him to forming bonds with another blind person in their ward, which leads to uncomfortable feelings arising. As the wards fill and the optometrist and his wife struggle to run the place without any outside help, it becomes patently clear that in this new found helplessness and with no one to help them the newly blind resort to apathy and slovenliness and are beyond caring.

Into this chaos comes a recently blind bartender and a man who has always been blind. This always been blind man quickly discovers the advantages of being familiar with this state of being and with the bartender declaring himself “King” starts to exploit the weaknesses of the recently blind. The key to “Blindness”’s central power as a film is Meirelles careful but brief examinations of the degradations we are willing to submit to in order to survive. He does not linger, nor sensationalize, he merely makes his point and moves on.

At the same point in the film as in the book, when there is a moment you feel the horror could be over, you realize that it’s implications are not only much worse, but glaringly obvious. The brief respites from the chaos are dealt with in the same way as the horrors, clean and precise.
Visually “Blindness” explores the white blindness of it’s protagonists only in glimpses and snatches, the point is never over emphasized again. In fact everything about “Blindness” is deftly handled to the point of it becoming a cathartic experience, clean and precise catharsis, but cathartic nonetheless.

Blindness – Directed by Fernando Meirelles.Starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo. Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal

10   4
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