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Sao Paulo-based director Meirelles says he sees the book as a brilliant exploration of the complex layers - both good and bad - of humanity. And his film, adapted for the screen by Toronto filmmaker Don McKellar, is, says the director, "the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life. "I'm still very scared," offers the wiry, bespectacled Meirelles, in a lightly accented English. "It's really, really difficult, even worse than City of God, which was my first feature."
Among the challenges: a vast cast (who go by such monikers as the Boy Who Squints and the Woman with the Dark Eye Patch) and the near-endless layers of themes that Saragamo explores in his dense text.
"In one scene we just finished, we had 16 actors. They're all professional actors, and each actor wants - needs - attention. So you need to talk to each one, and tell them what they were doing was good. I try to talk to everybody... but it is easier when you're doing a love story between a couple. It's much more controlled."
Later this day, Meirelles says, he will film a scene in which the female characters will be sent to a particular ward where they will be raped, afterward returning to their rooms, where some have husbands waiting. "So, after lunch, we'll do a little meeting to decide how bad they'll look," says Meirelles, an efficient director (he's ahead of schedule) but a stickler for detail.
"One of the women dies, so we'll have to establish how she dies," he adds, referring to the makeup. "And all the others, we'll have to see, one by one, how ripped their clothes are, etc. It's pretty grim."
That raw immediacy aside, Meirelles says he feels privileged to be working on Blindness - he describes the novel as "genius" - and with such a high-calibre cast. "You met Mark, isn't he the most wonderful man, warm and human? And Julie is a dream to work with, so easygoing. The humanity of the film is really on their shoulders, in their hands."
The film is a co-production of Fichman's Rhombus Media, Sonoko Sakai's Bee Vine Pictures of Japan, and Andrea Barata Ribeiro's O2 Filmes of Brazil. It's the second collaboration of Fichman and Sakai, who co-produced Francois Girard's feature film, Silk, with Keira Knightley and Canadian Callum Keith Rennie.
In total, there are about a dozen of what could be described as "lead actors" portraying the people initially infected. Glover is the Man with the Eye Patch and the film's narrator. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays the evil King of Ward 3. Toronto's Maury Chaykin is his partner in crime, a corrupt accountant. Susan Coyne, McKellar and Martha Burns are also in the cast.
Japan's Iseya portrays the first blind man; his wife is played by Japanese actor Yoshino Kimura. Brazilian Alice Braga, who will soon appear opposite Will Smith is the apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend, is Dark Glasses.
On set, people chat away in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese. And despite the bleak subject matter, there's a lot of good humour. One corridor of jail cells has been named "celebrity row": The cast and crew have posted signs on the sliding steel doors, sporting names of famous inmates, including Martha Stewart, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
Ruffalo enters a cell reserved for fallen Canadian media magnate Conrad Black, where the actor sits on a steel cot and talks about how, in his eyes, the multicultural cast underscores the gravity of the movie's themes. "Saramago is a self-described communist and his book - and this movie - is about community, the global community," says the actor.
"He takes away eyesight, which immediately dismisses rank, material worth, the way people look, physical boundaries and limitations. And it creates an environment where you need help, you need community, you can't do it alone. With the international cast, you get the sense this story is not located in a specific place. By design, it's nowhere and everywhere at the same time."