When Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was told that the Festival de Cannes wanted his new film, "Blindness," to open this year's event Wednesday night, he was "surprised, to be honest." Not because of a lack of faith in what he'd done but because of the nature of his accomplishment.
Taken from the novel by Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago and starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover, "Blindness" is in large part a disturbing, unnerving parable about the horrific ways society disintegrates when everyone in it (except Moore's character) goes inexplicably blind. It is not exactly a pretty picture, and, Meirelles says with a smile about opening night, "there's a dinner afterwards, it's not good for the digestion. In France, they like to boo, so I'm a bit worried."
In truth, only a director of Meirelles' particular combination of gifts could have brought that book's combination of despair and hope successfully to the screen. As demonstrated by his best-known features, "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener," which between them earned eight Oscar nominations, Meirelles joins the flair of commercial filmmaking with a socially conscious sensibility.
A latecomer to feature films at age 42, after nearly two decades of making independent television and commercials in Brazil, the still-youthful 52-year-old Meirelles says with typically disarming frankness that his choice of subject matter comes from "the advantage of starting doing films when I was very old.
"I had had a career as a commercial director, I had enough money to live on, and I thought it was such a waste of time to work only for money, for box office. If I'd been 29, 30, 35, maybe, but I was too old for that. A lot of money wasn't going to change my life, so what's the point? I was going to deal with subjects I was interested in."
Involving the audience
Yet, and this is one of the things that characterizes Meirelles and helps make "Blindness" a success, "being concerned with and including the audience" is a key part of what motivates him. "Some of my colleagues work for themselves, expressing ideas, but I want to bring the audience to the experience. For me, film finishes in the room it's shown in."
So while "Blindness" remains a harrowing piece to experience, Meirelles, who worked closely with Canadian screenwriter Don McKellar, reports that he softened the film's disturbing (but not graphic) scenes of sexual violence after "the audiences didn't react well at the first test screening; some people even walked out.
"When I shot and edited these scenes, I did it in a very technical way, I worried about how to light it and so on, and I lost the sense of their brutality. Some women were really angry with the film, and I thought, 'Wow, maybe I crossed the line.' I went back not to please the audience but so they would stay involved until the end of the story. You want the audience with you."
Ironically enough, Meirelles tried to buy the rights to Saramago's novel when it first came out, before he'd made any features. "I like the idea of the fragility of society, of how primitive we are as human beings. We have a little cover of sophistication, and without it it's all about survival."
Meirelles was turned down, as were many others. "He said no to eight or nine offers, even big offers from studios," the director reports. The novelist felt that his story wasn't appropriate for images. "Cinema," Saramago told Meirelles, "destroys imagination."
Finally winning the rights to the book -- whose characters have no names and exist in no specific place and time -- was Canadian producer Niv Fichman, who flew to Saramago's home in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, to persuade him. The only thing the author told Fichman and screenwriter McKellar was "don't set the story anywhere specific," and he was equally elusive when Meirelles spoke to him before directing.
"I asked him a lot of questions about the characters, and he wouldn't answer anything," the director reports. "The only thing he said was that the dog in the story, called the Dog of Tears, should be a big dog, not a small one. I read recently that when a journalist asked him which of his characters he liked the most, he said he could kill everyone except the Dog of Tears."
One change Meirelles made to the book was to do what he calls "adding gray," especially where the film's villain, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, was concerned. "In the book, he is really a mean guy, terribly evil from the beginning . . . but I thought it was more interesting to have him be not evil but more like a child with a gun."
That notion came in part from advice he got years ago from celebrated Brazilian stage director Antunes Filho. "He told me, 'When you are creating characters, try and include a scene that does the opposite of what you are trying to establish. That gives the character humanity.' I always try to take this lesson."
English, not Portuguese
While Meirelles had envisioned shooting the film in the novel's Portuguese when he first tried to acquire the rights, the realities of today's international film market mean that "if you do it in English you can sell it to the whole world and have a bigger audience." And while the film is in many ways an ensemble effort, Moore, whom the director praises for being "at the same time very economical and very expressive, with such a range," gives an exceptional performance as a character who metamorphoses in front of our eyes.
Daunting as starting Cannes with this film is for Meirelles, what is to come is even more so. Saramago had wanted to be at the festival for the premiere, but his doctors hadn't allowed him to travel. So the director is flying to Lisbon on Saturday to show him the film. "That's the screening I'm really afraid of," he says. "Two thousand people at the Grand Palais is not a big thing compared to Saramago's opinion."