Blindness (Canada/Brazil/Japan, 2008)
It has been said that one of the greatest fears expressed by human beings is to be suddenly struck blind - plunged into a blankness into which sound but no light can penetrate. Imagine this happening not to one person but to an entire population. Those who are blind from birth or lose their sight over time develop means of coping. In a case where vision is suddenly stripped away en masse, the result would be widespread panic. The degree to which society would crumble and fall into oblivion is a matter of individual interpretation, but this is the underlying premise of director Fernando Meirelles' Blindness, a dark, intellectually challenging adaptation of the novel by Jose Saramago. A meditation on isolation and primal urges, Blindness could loosely be classified as a post-apocalyptic story, but the "event" that occurs in this scenario isn't something as prosaic as a nuclear holocaust or a lethal plague. Instead, it's a sickness that renders everyone in the world blind except one woman. To quote Erasmus, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
The disease, which instantaneously blinds those infected by it, strikes quickly, beginning with a Patient Zero (Yusuke Iseya) and spiraling out of control by impacting everyone with whom he has contact. Soon, it's an epidemic and the government, unsure how to control the problem, sets up a concentration camp and dumps every blind person into it. Included in that population are the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who first examined Patient Zero, a prostitute with dark glasses (Alice Braga), a young boy, and several others. The doctor's wife (Julianne Moore) is also there. Although still able to see, she fakes blindness so she can accompany her husband into this hell-on-Earth. Within the concentration camp, attempts to establish order soon collapse and it becomes survival of the fittest, with a self-proclaimed king (Gael Garcia Bernal) using a gun to take control of the food supply and force everyone to accept his rule. But the doctor's wife possesses a weapon no one else has: sight.
Blindness is a fascinating intellectual exercise that explores how conditions and relationships might devolve in a closed community such as this one. Stripped of an element most humans believe to be crucial to civilization, some men and women find other, more basic ways to communicate while others seek to use the weakness of their fellows as a path to domination. Meirelles (who previously helmed City of God and The Constant Gardener) repeatedly asks viewers to place themselves in the group alongside the doctor's wife. We are complicit with her - the only ones who can see the conditions as they develop rather than hear and imagine them. Sometimes, even the seeing can be blind - as is the case with the doctor, who misses the bond that develops between her husband and the prostitute until it can no longer be ignored.
The biggest negative associated with Blindness has little to do with its narrative or structure, but with Meirelles' hyperstylized approach to realizing the story on-screen. While some of the lengthy moment of darkness (such as when the seeing Julianne Moore finds herself entering a place without light) are successful in setting mood and developing a level of tension, the bleaching of images and frequent white flashes are more often distracting than efficacious. When a style or approach overwhelms the substance of the story, the director risks losing his audience, and this occurs on more than one occasion during the course of this production.
Blindness makes no attempt to explain the cause of the disease or why one person is immune. Those things are irrelevant and represent establishing circumstances that have to be accepted for the story to work. The movie is about exploring how humanity might respond in a situation like this, and the response that is shown can be extrapolated to other situations. Blindness is about human nature, and shows both the positives and the negatives inherent in it. With its loose narrative structure and limited character development (we learn nothing about the pasts of any of the half-dozen significant individuals populating this picture), Blindness has the potential to confound and frustrate some viewers. On the other hand, there are those who, like me, will see this as an absorbing (if admittedly flawed) thought-piece. It engaged me throughout and I found the ending to be surprisingly hopeful.
Blindness (Canada/Brazil/Japan, 2008)
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal, Yusuke Iseya, Don McKellar
Screenplay: Don McKellar, based on the novel by José Saramago
Cinematography: César Charlone
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1