Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore are traipsing through a trash-strewn urban wasteland, scavenging for salvation. All around them, dozens of pitiful human beings dressed in filthy, mismatched clothes grope their way past wrecked cars and graffiti-splattered highway ramps, like dancers in some grotesque ballet of the damned.
It's not a pretty sight, but it's impossible to avert your eyes -- which is exactly the point. Director Fernando Meirelles and his camera crew are gearing up to shoot another take of "Blindness," a feature film based on the harrowing 1995 parable about an unnamed city stricken with a plague of sightlessness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago. Like nearly everyone else in the film, Ruffalo's character, an ophthalmologist known simply as "the Doctor," is afflicted with a terrifying malady in which the eyes appear normal but are coated with a milky whiteness that blocks out vision.
The only person immune is Moore's character, the doctor's heroic, steadfast wife. As the story gathers speed, she must guide her husband and a small group of fellow sufferers (played by Danny Glover, Alice Braga and others) through a perilous obstacle course, in a society where order has collapsed and humans are reduced to living like animals.
Critics heralded Saramago's novel as a brutal but un-put-down-able allegory of the 20th century's house of horrors: the Holocaust, the stigmatization of AIDS patients, the ominous encroachment of Big Brother. First published amid the fin-de-siecle fixation on end-times scenarios, it anticipated pop culture's ongoing obsession with apocalyptic story lines: "I Am Legend," "28 Weeks Later," the Christian/sci-fi "Left Behind" books, Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road."
And if the new film's setting visually echoes post-Katrina New Orleans or a sub-Saharan refugee camp, that reflects the director's view that the message of "Blindness" is becoming more timely every day.
"Because now, especially with the environment, we're really destroying the planet, but we keep going, keep selling, keep burning. It's like we can't see," says Meirelles, whose 2002 international breakout hit "City of God," about Brazilian youth gangs, stamped him as a skilled action auteur with a social conscience to match.
Filming of the Japanese-Canadian-Brazilian co-production wrapped up last fall in this chaotic mega-city. Miramax has scheduled the English-language film for release in August. Originally published in Portuguese as "Ensaio sobre a Cegueira" (Essay About Blindness), Saramago's international bestseller might've been titled "Eyes Wide Shut." In both book and film, blindness is not only a physical condition but a metaphor for the darker side of human nature: prejudice, selfishness, violence and willful indifference.
Yet Saramago's tenderness toward his characters makes it clear that he's not stigmatizing blindness or blind people per se. Rather, "Blindness" is about how we as humans look but don't always see. It's also about how quickly our seemingly stable lives, even in so-called developed nations, can spiral into anarchy and barbarism.
"Sometimes we read about tribal wars in some countries in Africa and how terrible they are and how aggressive and how violent. And we're exactly the same," says Meirelles, who has made something of a specialty of translating Third World moral quandaries into gripping dramatic narratives with which First World audiences are compelled to identify. In "City of God" he explored the predatory savagery of the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro's slums. In "The Constant Gardener" (2005) he probed the brutal exploitation of Africa by Western drug companies.
On uncertain ground
For the crew and cast, which includes roughly 700 extras, making "Blindness" was alternately frightening, draining and exhilarating. That was especially true of training to act "blind," says Christian Duurvoort, an actor who coached his colleagues in a series of workshops.
First, Duurvoort says, he did research by interviewing blind people, learning how they use their other senses to orient themselves in space and how they perceive the world around them. He then experimented by blindfolding himself. "I went to a park, I bumped into trees, I fell into holes, I got very irritated. I learned a lot of things about me I didn't like," he says, laughing.
Just as important as understanding the physical mechanics of being blind, Duurvoort says, was helping the actors deal with "the emotional state, the psychological state, being vulnerable." Meirelles had emphasized that he wanted the extras to seem like desperate, traumatized human beings, not B-movie zombies.
Practically everyone working on the film donned a blindfold at some point, even the producers and the director. Meirelles says the experience brought him to "a state of peace." But other crew members panicked.
In one exercise, the main actors were blindfolded and told to follow the sound of a bell. Ruffalo particularly had trouble and kept wandering around getting more and more lost. During shooting, in addition to a thick makeup layer to make him appear older, Ruffalo wore special contact lenses that rendered him blind, though his eyes were open.
"At first it's terrifying and then it's frustrating and then it gets quiet," says Ruffalo during a break from shooting. "We're tormented by our eyesight. A beautiful girl walks by, cars, clothes, terrible things on television. We're tormented by our eyes. You don't know this until you go blind. . . . As an actor I suddenly felt free."
The film's distinctive challenges were highly visible one Sunday afternoon on the set. The shoot was taking place beneath a highway near a busy street market, and though the area had been partially roped off for the crew, security measures were low-key. A curious crowd of locals in T-shirts and flip-flops gathered within a few feet of Moore and Ruffalo, snapping photos between takes, while relentless traffic roared by in all directions.
"Acao!" someone yelled. "Let's roll it quickly!" The "blind" actors lurched into position just as a city bus suddenly whipped through a crosswalk, nearly striking five male extras.
For the characters trapped in the Hobbesian purgatory of "Blindness," the seeing are practically as cursed as the sight-impaired. As the growing epidemic spreads panic, hundreds of people, including the doctor and his wife, are rounded up by the government and placed in quarantine, where they are menaced by a gang of thugs led by a very unsavory Gael Garcia Bernal. The movie doesn't shy from depicting the degrading living conditions, though it will spare audiences some of the novel's more excruciating details, such as people slipping on piles of excrement. Rape and revenge killing come into play in the film.
But so do valor, courage and many small, redemptive acts of individual kindness. Through being blind, the principal characters discover (or rediscover) their ability to empathize with others. "It's at times the very best we can be and also the ugliest and basest and worst that mankind has toward one another," Ruffalo says.
Though "Blindness" won't be an easy sell, Meirelles, screenwriter Don McKellar and the rest of the production team are trying to leaven the book's relentlessly grim atmosphere by capturing the mordant wit of Saramago's third-person narrator. (Though Saramago for years resisted selling the movie rights to "Blindness," he has taken a hands-off approach to the adaptation.)
"What allows you to stomach the book is that slightly ironic, distanced literary voice. And it's also what keeps it from becoming a sort of exploitation film," says McKellar, a Canadian who has acted and shared the 2006 Tony Award for best book of a musical for the 1920s pastiche "The Drowsy Chaperone." "I realized I had to come up with a cinematic something that could allow the viewer to have some perspective on what was happening."
McKellar and Meirelles decided that some of that perspective could come from voice-overs supplied by Glover's character, identified in the book only as the Man with the Black Eye-Patch, who functions as a kind of Saramago alter ego. The filmmakers also are infusing "Blindness" with the occasional visual wink or sight gag. In one outdoor scene, a group of blind men staggers past a large landscape painting that's been discarded on a street corner. For a few seconds, their stumbling bodies form a tableau vivant that art-history mavens may recognize as a parody of "The Parable of the Blind" (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The film makes a handful of sly, fleeting allusions to other famous artworks.
"It's about image, the film, and vision," Meirelles explains, "so I thought it makes sense to create, not a history of painting, because it's not, but having different ways of seeing things, from Rembrandt to these very contemporary artists. But it's a very subtle thing."
The movie's greatest visual asset may be its Sao Paulo backdrop. Though the city is South America's largest, it's mostly unknown to U.S. and European audiences, and doesn't suffer from overexposure. Its relative anonymity fits with Saramago's insistence that the story's location be made as generic as possible. "Blindness" also was shot partly in Toronto and Montevideo, Uruguay.
Meirelles, a native Paulistano, lobbied to shoot the movie in his hometown because of its extraordinary multiethnic mix, underscoring that "Blindness" is a cautionary tale not about a specific society but about mankind.
Wasn't it dispiriting to be immersed for weeks in this bleak universe, Meirelles is asked. He shakes his head.
"We all thought that we were going to have a very hard experience, that it was going to be a painful experience, but we never had such a great time," he says. "Mark's such a funny guy, and Julianne has this great, huge sense of humor. So it was a very, very good and light experience, which is weird -- such a dark story."
One of the extras, Sarah Negritri, agrees. Sporting a stained green dress, wild reddish hair and body makeup to make her look dirty, the 25-year-old actress has found her brief exposure to the world of the blind to be unusually enlightening.
"We learn to be more sensitive and we care more about the essential, especially about the essence of human beings," she says. "And when I go back home I pay attention to my relationships with my friends and family. You realize that a lot of things aren't that essential."
Special correspondent Cristiana Ferraz Coimbra in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.