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When Fernando Meirelles screened a version of his new film Blindness to a test audience in Toronto before it was completed, he realized that he had a problem on his hands: Ten per cent of his audience, almost 50 people, walked out before the end.

"My first cut of the film was very hard, like the book. It was almost unbearable," Meirelles said yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival, where Blindness, a Canadian co-production, was the opening-night film.

Based on a novel by Portuguese Nobel winner Jose Saramago, it's the story - a fable, as star Julianne Moore puts it - about people trapped in a world where there is a blindness epidemic. Their journey gets very dark at points (although their sightlessness is portrayed as radiantly white, which one character compares to "swimming in milk"). The problem in the Toronto screening, Meirelles figured, was a scene of sexual violence.The scene occurs part way through the film and, at that early stage, was quite a bit longer than in the finished film.

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The Brazilian director had no interest in playing provocateur if it meant that he was losing his audience. He told the story of sitting next to his friend, director Gaspar Noe, when Noe's film Irreversible was screened at Cannes six years ago. Irreversible contains a famously graphic and prolonged rape scene, and the audience made its displeasure loudly known, booing and screaming "idiot!" at Noe. "Gaspar was very happy with that," Meirelles said, "but I thought, 'This is not good, Gaspar.' "

Meirelles said he is interested in bums in seats, which is why he doesn't scorn test screenings like the one in Toronto. "If you know how to use it, how to ask the right questions, it can be really useful."

On the subject of cultural peculiarities, for instance: During a New York test screening, Meirelles found the audience obsessed with why one character hadn't performed a violent act of revenge earlier. "Nobody in Canada or Brazil thought this," he says. But Americans were hung up on the victim's failure to act, which Meirelles blames not on some innate bloodlust but what they've learned to expect at the movies. "I don't think they're more aggressive," Meirelles said. "It's because of what cinema teaches."

It was quite entertaining to watch one of Meirelles's stars, Gael Garcia Bernal, get worked up on the subject of what cinema teaches - or rather, what it shouldn't teach. The Mexican actor becomes impassioned at the suggestion that his character, a bartender who becomes a despot in the kingdom of the blind, is "evil."

"I don't see him as evil," Bernal said. "I don't have a moral approach to a character, never. ... I'd worry it would become a caricature."

Bernal's character - like everyone in the film, he has no name, only a descriptive noun for a title - makes a "kamikaze" choice, for good or ill. "That's the joy of fiction," he said. "You can approach things without having to make these moral judgments."

The cast of Blindness was gathered in Cannes's Hotel Martinez yesterday, the morning after their film's premiere. Many of them had seen it for the first time only that night. Mark Ruffalo, filming Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, was the only principal cast member missing, but Moore, who plays his wife, sent him up-to-the-minute texts from the red-velvet interior of Cannes's Grand Palais.

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The actress had been to Cannes before but never with the opening-night film. "Here's a film festival where they announce the filmmaker's name and everyone applauds," she said. "It's a festival about filmmakers, about cinema itself."

The other cast members rehearsed for a bit with blindfolds on to get a sense of sightlessness, but were mindful of Meirelles's advice not to "overthink" it - that is, not to end up like stumbling caricatures of the blind. Moore's character retains her sight and so was saved from this exercise, probably a good thing; she said she doesn't much like rehearsal or preparing a back story. Did she even give her character a name? "No!"

Despite the grim moments in the film - or perhaps because of them - the set was remarkably cheery. "We were incredibly interdependent," she said, and laughed. "We were touching each other all time."

Blindness was filmed in Uruguay, Sao Paolo, Toronto and Guelph, Ont., where Moore's kids were thrilled to find a pool in the backyard. On top of that, she found a role that freed her from certain Hollywood constraints: "I had no makeup, so I didn't have to come in early," she said, "Literally I'd show up, put on my dirty clothes and go."

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