'Blindness' Goes From the Page to the Screen

In an unnamed megalopolis, citizens are going blind. A milky whiteness gradually blots out everything, so they lose sight not only of their families, friends, neighbors and acquaintances but of the contours and trappings of their daily lives. As they succumb, and as others fearfully quarantine them, one woman remains clear-eyed among the blind. She grapples with her almost godly powers—and unbearable responsibility—as a seer. And as her world crumbles into a messy urban dystopia, she labors to help people survive the horrors they can't see. She feeds, escorts, cleans, heals and tries to lead her flock toward survival.

Portugal's only winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, José Saramago, created this chilling world more than a decade ago in his astounding novel "Blindness." It is an uncompromising and powerfully imagined parable set against the backdrop of human indifference. In a city racked by pandemic disease and the societal breakdown it causes, Saramago's nameless heroine and those around her struggle to retain their dignity. It is the sort of story that divides people between those who can't put it down and those who are too unnerved to continue reading. "I know a lot of people who can't finish the book because it is such a dark story," says the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. "I started reading the book and couldn't stop."

He quickly set out to obtain the film rights. But Saramago refused to sell them. That was in 1997, and he didn't know that Meirelles would go on to direct the acclaimed and gritty "City of God," or the romantic thriller "The Constant Gardener." Nor did he care; he wasn't ready to see his characters transposed into celluloid. Fortunately, time changed Saramago's mind; Meirelles says that "by chance" he was offered the project five years later. Now, 13 years after the novel was published in Portuguese, the film version is beginning to arrive in theaters. It's a challenging, surprisingly faithful and fascinating adaptation, imperfect yet thoroughly engaging.

In the film, the government responds to an apparent contagion of blindness by corraling the victims into an impromptu asylum. Quarantined, they create a nascent democracy based on solidarity, until overcrowding and a few bad seeds drive their nation-in-miniature toward an exploitative dictatorship that sparks an uprising.

Through it all, the seer (Julianne Moore), known only as "the doctor's wife," feigns sightlessness to be able to look after her blind husband. Early on, she plays the woman behind the man, caring for people while pretending that the doctor is. As the social structures disintegrate amid food shortages, sexual exploitation and a surreal power struggle inside the quarantine zone, the seer fully assumes her role as leader. Her battle is twofold: to help those around her retain some modicum of dignity, and then, when they return to the changed world outside, simply to survive.

Some directors might have been tempted to dull the story's jagged edges and play up the tale of sacrifice and hope at its core, but—to his credit—Meirelles resisted. He astutely recognized that the novel is about humanity coping with a truly oppressive force. (The overwhelming effect of a blind contagion on society bears surprising similarities to the role of the suffocating State in George Orwell's "1984.") The deeper point is that profound desperation strips human beings bare. And for those ready to wrestle with such rawness, this is a remarkably thought-provoking film.

It is also a flawed one. A rushed edit was screened at the 2008 Cannes film festival, to mixed reviews and complaints that it relied too much on a clunky voice-over. So Meirelles wisely eliminated most of the voice-over. But other problems remain. The opening sequence, depicting people in a hectic city spontaneously going blind, which plays so powerfully on the page, proves jarring on screen. The eminently talented Mexican actor Gael García Bernal relishes his role as the budding asylum dictator, but the character is too archetypal to be convincing. (It is underwritten in the novel as well.) And many moments of weighty contemplation in the book are sacrificed for efficient cinematic narrative, shortchanging Saramago's work.

But people looking for more can always read the novel. The film is an example of gutsy and ambitious risk taking of a sort that is all too rare. Held together by deft central performances (especially by Moore and Mark Ruffalo, who plays her husband) and propelled by Meirelles's elegant visual storytelling, the movie is well worth enduring some imperfections to spend time in Saramago's richly rendered universe. Meirelles now says he's glad that Saramago refused to sell the film rights in the late 1990s. "It would have been my first feature," he says, "and I think I wasn't prepared [emotionally] to do that film." Those who are emotionally prepared to watch it can only hope to learn its lessons before some form of blindness reaches them.