See­ing the dark­ness

Deep in­tro­spec­tion in­forms Fer­nando Meirelles’s lat­est vi­sion, writes Su­san Chen­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT was amid the clam­our, the flat­ter­ing at­ten­tion, the red car­pets and canapes — all the ex­cit­ing things that a suc­cess­ful film can bring — that Brazil­ian di­rec­tor Fer­nando Meirelles un­ac­count­ably hit a wall of de­pres­sion and cracked up. His art­ful thriller The Con­stant Gar­dener had been the toast of the Venice film fes­ti­val, he was the coolest guy in town, but he just couldn’t get out of bed and he didn’t know why.

‘‘ Ev­ery­thing was good in my life,’’ he says. ‘‘ My fam­ily was healthy, the re­la­tion­ship with my wife and kids was good, the film was good. I started mak­ing lists and could only con­clude that my life was re­ally per­fect.

‘‘ But I was just so sad and de­pressed. I had never had this kind of feel­ing be­cause I am a very op­ti­mistic per­son. I had al­ways been able to do suc­cess­ful work and had never had any prob­lems, but I had to stop and say, ‘ Wow, what is hap­pen­ing?’ I de­cided to take 2006 off and thought I would never do an­other film be­cause the com­mo­tion was just too much. So I started ther­apy and gave my­self time to look into it. I had never given my­self time to go so deep.’’

This pe­riod of dark in­tro­spec­tion would lead him to his lat­est film, Blind­ness . Based on the pow­er­ful novel by Jose Sara­m­ago, it is the story of what hap­pens when an epi­demic of white blind­ness strikes a city in wave af­ter pan­ick­ing wave. Try­ing to con­tain it, the au­thor­i­ties lock the af­flicted into a men­tal asy­lum where all the rules of civil­i­sa­tion break down. A strug­gle for sur­vival breaks out in a world of blind ter­ror, ruled by sight­less thugs.

The story res­onated for Meirelles, whose own suc­cess­ful life had abruptly fallen apart and who had dis­cov­ered the fragility of things.

‘‘ I thought it was quite sim­i­lar to my story,’’ he says. ‘‘ Here is a so­ci­ety that is quite or­gan­ised, then sud­denly some­thing hap­pens and ev­ery­thing col­lapses. This film is like my­self, in how much do we have to suf­fer to be able to face our­selves. There are re­ally parts in­side of us that we don’t want to see, our dark ar­eas. When we talk about blind­ness there is also blind­ness re­gard­ing our­selves. We are very so­phis­ti­cated but also very frag­ile. Some­thing hap­pens and it is gone, like a tsunami.

‘‘ I was com­ing out of the same kind of hard ex­pe­ri­ence. Find­ing my­self, I be­gan to do this film. It was very mixed up, the process.’’

This is not the first time Meirelles

has ven­tured into un­for­giv­ing ter­ri­tory. His dar­ing break­out film City of God, which he fi­nanced, was an elec­tri­fy­ing, in­tox­i­cat­ing jour­ney into the slums of Rio de Janeiro: gang war­fare told from the point of view of the slum chil­dren who grow into crime over­lords. Filmed in the ghetto us­ing an army of non-pro­fes­sion­als, it was de­scribed by one critic as an ‘‘ al­most mil­i­tary raid on this danger­ous ter­ri­tory . . . some­thing that com­bines film­mak­ing with oral his­tory’’.

Meirelles, 53, comes from a mid­dle-class fam­ily in Sao Paulo and ini­tially stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture. He worked in tele­vi­sion for many years be­cause there was no money to fi­nance films in Brazil un­til re­cently.

He in­sists that de­spite the hard-hit­ting sub­jects of his films ( The Con­stant Gar­dener is about cor­rupt phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies in Africa), it is not his in­ten­tion to moralise. He is more an ob­server of hu­mankind, say­ing that ‘‘ we need to learn how to see, to see our­selves, to see oth­ers, to see the planet that we are burn­ing’’.

The tricky part of mak­ing a film about blind peo­ple from their per­spec­tive is that their sto­ries need to be told au­then­ti­cally, but in a vis­ual medium. ‘‘ When you do a film, ev­ery­thing is re­lated to point of view, to vi­sion,’’ the di­rec­tor says. ‘‘ When you have two char­ac­ters in a di­a­logue, emo­tion is ex­pressed by the way peo­ple look at each other, through the eyes. Es­pe­cially in the cut, the edit. You usu­ally cut when some­one looks over. Film is all about point of view and in this film there is none.’’

To get into the mood, he con­ducted ex­er­cises in be­ing blind that don’t sound like a whole lot of fun: ‘‘ You learn a lot of things, the sound and all the sen­si­bil­ity. For me it was comfortable to stay four or five hours blind­folded, walk­ing. But what was in­ter­est­ing in all those ex­er­cises was that each per­son re­acts in a very dif­fer­ent way. I re­mem­ber the sound guy af­ter an hour blind­folded sat down, started cry­ing and cried for 40 min­utes. Some peo­ple got very ir­ri­tated and sen­si­tive and didn’t want any­one to help them across the road.

‘‘ For me it was comfortable, calm, re­laxed. I re­ally rec­om­mend it: to put on a blind­fold and stay for hours, a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In a group, if you are chat­ting, you put on the blind­fold and sud­denly the con­ver­sa­tion changes. Maybe be­cause you don’t see the re­ac­tions of the oth­ers, you start talk­ing about sub­jects that you wouldn’t nor­mally talk about.’’

He has cre­ated mov­ing pic­tures from the work of some pow­er­ful writ­ers: The Con­stant Gar­dener was adapted from John le Carre’s novel; City of God from au­thor Paulo Lins, and Blind­ness from the book by No­bel win­ner Sara­m­ago. None had been overly keen for their books to be made into films but all, Meirelles says, were very sup­port­ive.

‘‘ The in­ter­est­ing thing about the book Blind­ness is that when you first read it, it is very dra­matic, very vi­o­lent, but af­ter you read it six or seven times, each time I read it there was more sar­casm and hu­mour.

‘‘ When you adapt a book lots of things are lost, it is more the spirit of the book.’’

The spirit of Meirelles’s film is un­re­lent­ingly grim. But de­spite his cin­e­matic view of hu­man­ity in peril, he still has faith in peo­ple.

‘‘ The way that so­ci­ety re­ally dis­in­te­grates, that is what would hap­pen,’’ he says. ‘‘ All those vi­o­lent in­stincts and prim­i­tive be­hav­iours would come out. But some peo­ple would find their hu­man­ity back, and in the film they were able to build a fam­ily.

‘‘ I trust the hu­man be­ing. We have this power, this en­ergy. It is maybe a bit cliched, but [ with] love, if you know to love, you can build things.’’

Blind­ness opens on Thurs­day.

Blind lead­ing the blind: A scene from the Fer­nando Meirelles fea­ture Blind­ness , which was in­spired by the Brazil­ian di­rec­tor’s bout of de­pres­sion in 2006

Look within: Meirelles at Cannes last year

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