11 July 2009

Stark white

And is not blindness precisely the condition of men who are entirely cut off from knowledge of any reality, and have in their soul no clear pattern of perfect truth ...

- Plato, The Republic

There is no substitute to a reading experience, even if that experience is an essay on blindness. When we read the fine print that is thrust into our hands, we couldn’t help but finger the Braille in our minds. The literal obscurity of vision becomes a catatonic experience of helplessness and powerlessness. In the face of unseeing, we disappear into the story, and live in the recounted horrors as active participants, commiserating with the villains, cheering the do-gooders. Once we are thrust into the world of sightlessness, we are implicated in the narrative in which the violence of our humanity is exposed, in the full light of day. Not amber, not black, but stark white.

In José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, an epidemic of something called white blindness sweeps an unidentified city. One by one, patients are brought in quarantine – the government’s primary response to contain the spread of contagion. What happens when blind people all live together in one place and food eventually become scarce? It's an invitation to chaos and the ensuing breakdown of human values, decency, morals, and all other things we associate with goodness in human civilization. The futility of governmental response and the individual human response is exposed. Throughout this crisis, a woman – an ophthalmologist’s wife, no less – is the only one left who can still see. She helps a small band of blind people cope with the situation.

If that sounds very cinematic, it is. At least on paper. Few people would dare to translate Saramago’s vision into a movie because it is not, in the first place, “movie material.”

Of course, cinema can get the verisimilitude, the characters can fit the bill, the production design can nail everything right, the props, the bunks, the facility for the blind, even the stink. But the emotional trauma is lacking, not that we want more of it, that would be perverse. It’s the trauma of blind reading experience that is impossible to capture, which in the case of Blindness the book, is virtually (visually) impossible to communicate.

I think any movie adaptation of Blindness will be hard-pressed to live up to expectation because to transform into the physical medium the essence of white blindness will require a new way of seeing. That is the prejudice I harbor before watching the movie, and that is the certainty that I have after seeing it.

In the movie, directed by Fernando Meirelles, we have a multinational set of characters. (They are not just Portuguese as one would expect. The language in which the book was first published is Portuguese). That’s a good indication that the filmmakers get the universality of the situation right. The actors essentially play well their counterparts in the book. It is a faithful adaptation. It will be heretical to deviate too much from the book as it is. Blindness the book is one solid vision and an already perfect manifesto.

A movie is about seen images, and so we are presented with images dissolving into white. A character sees white tiles dissolving into white, bleached walls becoming white, and other white dissolutions of scenes into fog. Fair enough. So what is lacking in the movie experience? For one, how can a filmmaker translate into images the unbroken paragraphs that is Saramago's unique style? The dialogue separated by commas in which a character seems to dissolve with the one he is speaking with, so that one confuses the speaker with the one spoken to. In the book, it is not merely the images dissolving into stark white, but characters dissolve into each other. The confusion in the book is all the more unsettling because it is the “white imagination” that we are flung in the midst of, without a map or guide. In a movie, the very images themselves appear to defeat the purpose of viewing.

This is not to romanticize the book beyond its intention. The representation of a banal nightmare is not only visual but also metaphorical. What is lacking is the complexity of imagination that the movie supplants with photography.

Am I asking for too much in a movie? Well, yes. One couldn’t help it. The reader identifies with the Saramagian universe, where the essence of characters is delineated in terms of their ability to cope with an extraordinary situation. The reading experience is the more disorienting one, the more exemplary in its psychological and emotional exploration of stolen lives. It is the imagined blindness that is exhibited in the mind, a mental conjuring of a world deserted by eyes. And since it is a world gone blind, it is also beyond imagination. It is of the unspeakable and unimaginable variety. In this case, the sense of the literary does not beg for a sense of sight.

Blindness the movie then is a contradiction, in both the physical and metaphysical sense. In the physical sense because the premise is lost in the very act of watching the scenes unfold, and in the metaphysical sense because the idea of blindness is also an allegorical notion. The movie is really essentially not about blindness, but an appeal to blindness.

[What Socrates meant by blindness (being "cut off from knowledge of any reality" and having "no clear pattern of perfect truth" in the soul) is of the abstract sort. This is the definition he gave to Glaucon in a dialogue about what qualities the Guardians of the state should not possess. For me, this kind of blindness ("spiritual blindness," if you will) is what propels the book to more than its literal meaning. As opposed to "physical blindness" (the subject, for example, of Henry Green's masterful first novel, also titled Blindness), spiritual blindness is the graver and the more dangerous for it knows no cure and the symptoms are harder to detect.]

Yet this does not mean that the entire movie sucks. It is just that compared to the book, the imagery is now simplified, or the action being reduced to physical images. How can imagery substitute for the experience of Blindness the book when it is the very idea of seeing that is expelled out of the picture? Fade to black is now fade to white?

For those who have read the book first, the movie is experienced in the realm of familiar images. The blindfolded statues in a church, the purifying rain, the shopping center, the facility, the dog of tears – all these are faithful and just-right recreations.

(In The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago’s novel immediately preceding Blindness, the religious theme is very explict. The reference to atheism in Blindness is more subtle. In one of the early scenes of the movie, the doctor’s wife likens the disease to a case of “agnosia” or the inability to recognize familiar objects, and she naturally recognize the pun with agnosticism. This term is, I believe, not mentioned in the book.

The connection betweem agnosticism or atheism or lack of faith/belief and the loss of sight has been made before. Think of Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus. In the book, this idea is reinforced by the image of blindfolded statues of saints in the church, which the wife visited after escaping from the facility. This is a powerful evocation of un-belief. Along with the horrific consequences of the epidemic of white blindness, it questions the existence of a god who watches over all this. It may be stretching too much the meaning of Saramago, but there it is. Saramago is a confessed atheist and is known for his strong ideological views.)

It was reported that Saramago had reservations about the potential of his novel as a film. And with good cause. As mentioned earlier, it is hardly a material for a movie or any dramatic adaptation, for that matter. We expect the filmmakers to have been guided by their instincts. For the most part they are. They took all they can from the book and it served them well.

Still, the movie pales in comparison with the book. Scratch that. “Pales” is a visual term. The movie is lackluster (in the sense that it lacks sufficient power to pull the reader in). That is not to say that the movie is utterly fails. It is, on its own terms, a well made movie.

Like the book, the movie’s images are fluent at capturing the horror and degradation that happens inside and outside the facility of the blind. We find ourselves averting our gaze from the despicable things that happen in the story. The film’s aesthetic is stable, grounded as it is in the novel’s aesthetic of madness and ugliness. The filmmakers were able to see in the eye this mad and ugly concentration camp and at the same time deliver glimpses of empathy in this darkest of nightmares.

For all the idealization of the book being impenetrable to adaptation, and the criticism of the movie’s inability to live up to the book, I admit that there is a certain virtue that the movie was able to adapt and to deliver, and this is compassion. It is that rare quality that brings hope even after a parade of horrifying events. The director’s compassion alights on the screen just as they do on the novelist’s pages. It renders Blindness into more than an experience of cruelty, irony, and cynicism, but an experience of regeneration and purification.

Blindness the movie is well made because, however wanting, it sees through the novel vision of the book. For me, the movie even functions as a homage to Saramago. It has a high regard for the author and for the literature he created. Maybe that is why Saramago was very touched, even in tears, upon seeing the movie himself. Maybe he could not believe someone will have the audacity to transfer into film, into stark color, what we can just imagine seething against the blinding light of day.


  1. I saw this move twice in the cinemas; first when it came out, and in a special session after Saramago passed away. Both times I enjoyed it very much - the second time I had the pleasure of having the theater just for myself, given the late hours, an amazing experience.

    It is, as you rightly say, not a great movie, and it pales in comparison, but the performances captivated me throughout.

    Have you read the loose sequel, Seeing? I've read it twice, and it's a novel I'd love to see turned into a movie.

  2. I could imagine a solitary viewing of Blindness (in a dim theater!) to be the closest encounter to the effects of the novel.

    I haven't read Seeing but am very much curious as to how it extended the story. It's a "must-see" for me.