Meirelles returns to spotlight at Cannes

Director opens festival with 'Blindness'

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles returns to the Cannes film festival with opener “Blindness,” his first film in competition, six years after his triumph with “City of God” in Critics’ Week.

“When I first came to Cannes nobody knew me,” he said. “It was my first film showing outside Brazil. After the first screening the phone never stopped ringing, and we sold the whole world. I’m thankful to Cannes for putting me on the map.”

This year he’s bringing a dripping wet print from Paris that barely got subtitled in time. He had hoped to land a slot late in the fest, but fest topper Thierry Fremaux asked for opening night, and Meirelles pushed up his schedule by a week to accommodate the request.

“It’s done,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Sao Paolo.

Meirelles is now in a very different place: an Oscar-nominated, established world-class international auteur whose last film, “The Constant Gardener,” won an Oscar for Rachel Weisz and grossed $81 million worldwide. But he has kept his independence. His fourth film, the $25 million “Blindness,” which stars Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, was a Japanese/Brazilian/Canadian co-venture; the producers pre-sold 42 territories at Cannes last year. Miramax Films acquired North American rights after the completion of principal photography in Canada, and plans a Sept. 19 release Stateside.

After failing to obtain the film rights to the bestseller “Blindness” from author Jose Saramago in 1995, Meirelles was amazed when almost a decade later Canadian actor-writer-producer Don McKellar, who had finally persuaded the writer to let him adapt his book, approached him with an offer to direct the movie. “Blindness,” which also stars Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal and Alice Braga, follows the first group of people who suddenly go blind, and revert to survival of the fittest behavior when they are confined in an asylum. McKellar plays a small role.

Only one person does not go blind, a housewife played by Moore, who keeps her secret to stay with her doctor husband (Ruffalo); the movie is told from her point of view. “There’s no explanation for why she can see,” Meirelles said. “One guy goes blind, then everyone he has any relationship with does, and in a few weeks, the whole world is blind. All of humanity is collapsing. Everyone is losing their humanity. There’s no good guys and bad guys.”

When Meirelles met Ruffalo in Cannes last year, he discovered that the actor had had a brain tumor scare that required surgery and forced him to be reluctantly dependent on his wife, very similar to his blind character in the film. He offered him a role on the spot.

Meirelles feels strongly that $25 million is the perfect movie budget: “Not big enough to have you give up control and not small enough so you can’t do what you have in your mind,” he said. Meirelles admits that the teaser trailer on “Blindness” does not entirely reflect the film, which is more violent, but expects to see a proper trailer soon.

Meirelles, who runs a large commercial company, is returning to television with a sprawling Brazilian miniseries “Sound and Fury,” which starts filming in July. It’s a Portuguese-language adaptation of the hit Canadian series “Slings and Arrows,” also produced by Fichman’s Rhombus Media.

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