Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 18:06 UK

Blindness is a Cannes eye-opener

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Cannes

Gael Garcia Bernal and Julianne Moore
Gael Garcia Bernal and Julianne Moore star in Blindness
Opening a film festival with a movie about the inability to see seems like a strange idea, but that's what the organisers of Cannes have done.

That film is Blindness, a harrowing psychological drama about what happens when humankind suddenly loses the ability to see.

It all starts simply enough. One man stops his car in the middle of a busy street having lost his vision. "It's like swimming in a sea of milk," he tells the concerned citizens who gather around him.

But as the story unfolds, more and more people become afflicted with "white blindness", causing widespread panic and, eventually, a shocking, dehumanising response from the government.

The victims are rounded up and sent to an internment camp, stripped of their dignity and identity.

There are some things that she does that are quite brutal and vigilante-like
Julianne Moore on her character The Doctor's Wife

To many, the film's theme of neglect by the authorities at a time of national disaster will recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 Tsunami or, more immediately, the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

"The story deals with something we have to confront, which is our own inability to see what's going on around us," says actor Danny Glover.

"When I was born, there were 2.5 billion people in the world. Now 2.5 billion people earn less than $2 (1) a day and we don't see that. We're blind to them."

The idea that the film's protagonists have become invisible to the rest of the world is emphasised in their character names. They are simply labelled "first blind man", "doctor" or "girl with the dark glasses".

No names, no identity

"One thing goes and everything else collapses," explains director Fernando Meirelles.

The film, he says, can be interpreted on many levels - from the philosophical conundrum of how the rules of society are maintained, to the way humans revert to their basest instincts when they are backed into a corner.

Danny Glover
The story deals with something we have to confront, which is our own inability to see what's going on around us
Danny Glover

"We're very primitive, we're like animals," he says.

This is apparent in the second half of the film as the prisoners, living in squalor and hunger, begin turn on each other.

There is only one eyewitness to this horror, the doctor's wife - played by Julianne Moore - whose sight is unaffected when she sneaks into the prison to be with her husband.

Drawing on previously untapped strengths, she begins to stand up to the other inmates, eventually becoming a mother figure to a mismatched band of strangers.

It is another compelling performance from the Academy Award-nominated actress, who creates a strong, yet fallible, character. Audiences may not agree with all of the choices she makes - but they will land firmly on her side by the end of the movie.

"I wanted her to walk a line between responsibility and irresponsibility," says the 47-year-old.

"There are some things that she does that are quite brutal and vigilante-like. But in heroism, sometimes people get hurt who are not in the circle we are protecting."

'Fun to film'

Although Moore is the stand-out character in the film, she leads a classy international ensemble including Gael Garcia Bernal, Mark Ruffalo and Sandra Oh.

Blindness is an adaptation of the 1995 novel by Jose Saramago

When the cast first saw the desolate, filthy prison set, Moore says, they were "almost sick" - but soon gathered themselves together and had "lots of fun" working together.

"We ate lunch together, made a lot of jokes, formed a community," she says.

And the actors all found the process of learning to be blind more enjoyable than they thought.

"It was incredibly liberating and joyful, as well as scary," says Bernal.

"It gets you in an extreme situation every moment. It makes you feel very alive."

The cast's experiences handily chime in with the moral of the film - that we discover hidden depths when we delve beneath the crude visual cues of modern life.

And if there is a better allegory for the ethos of Cannes, it would be hard to find.

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