From the trailers, “Blindness” may look like an M. Night Shyamalan event movie where an unexplained supernatural event leads to chaos and it’s all resolved with a twist ending, but it’s actually the kind of movie that could conceivably be shown in a Western Civ course. Like that required 100-level history course, though, the movie itself sometimes feels like swallowing your medicine.
Based on the 1995 novel by Nobel-laureate José Saramago and originally published in Portuguese, “Blindness” has been described by critics as “unfilmable.” Who better, then, to take the reins of an English-language film adaptation than the adventurous Fernando Meirelles, whose Brazilian stunner “City of God” nabbed him a Best Director nomination? (He also led Rachel Weisz to a Best Supporting Actress win in his cross-genre international political thriller “The Constant Gardener.”)
Maybe the reason the book carried that label was because what is depicted in the story works better metaphorically—and when you don’t have to actually see them played out.
Set in an unnamed city populated by all ethnicities, where people drive European cars and everyone speaks with a different accent (but they all speak English), “Blindness” centers around a doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who are ushered into an internment camp when people in the city are suddenly stricken with “white blindness.”
The ambiguous setting already removes the movie from reality and is a great way of introducing sense of otherworldliness, throwing everything off balance in “Blindness” from the very beginning. One of the truly unsettling aspects of the film is the way the epidemic is portrayed visually. All the colors are washed out, as everything is infected by white. Flashes of light intrude on the frame, which toggles in and out of focus when the movie switches to someone else’s point of view. Not Moore’s, of course, because for some reason, she is not blind.
Why? It doesn’t matter. Her character enters the same building to protect and support her husband and the roles in their relationship slowly change. It soon becomes overcrowded and the people go from being isolated to being completely ignored. The hordes of newly blind waste no time trying to organize and set up some sort of society. The woman’s husband emerges as a leader, but is quickly usurped by a greedy and shallow opportunist (Gael Garcia Bernal) who wants material possessions and anything else he can get his hands on. He’s not above taking things by force.
If the newly blind are the more helpless in this evolving culture, then a blind person who’s lived with the disability his whole life would have some advantages over them. That means a seeing person could be very powerful. “Blindness” asks tough questions about what societal rules we live by and what responsibility we have towards our fellow citizens. At what point will one feel compelled to act on that responsibility?
There is nothing like an equalizing crisis to bring out the worst in people, and “Blindness” pretty much covers it all. As this new society—born out of neglect, confusion, and filth—continues to grow, the dark side of human nature seems to reign. We’re talking “Lord of the Flies” material here.
Seeing it all play out in front of you is a very voyeuristic feeling. Meirelles switches point of view every now and then, but mostly this is Moore’s story. It has to be, or we wouldn’t see very much. We are right along with her, watching in horror as people disregard even the most basic of human responsibilities. Is this what would really happen to a modern world so addicted to its conveniences?
“Blindness” does offer some light at the end of the tunnel, but its real purpose is to reveal what is behind the masks that we all wear for social convention. It can’t help but come off a little pretentious and preachy because witnessing this behavior firsthand makes the allegorical obvious. It is like taking your medicine also in the fact that it tastes really bad going down. It’s unpleasant and some of it is downright pessimistic for sure, but there is something cleansing about the movie and for some of the characters—finally, literally cleansing—once the credits are rolling.