When civilization breaks down, where will you stand? With the folks trying to reknit the social fabric, or with the ones tearing it to shreds and welcoming back the law of the jungle? There’s nothing new in this scenario — we all had to read Lord of the Flies. But movies about social collapse seem to be coming thick and fast these days, from Children of Men to The Mist to The Happening to large parts of The Dark Knight. (An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road hits theaters next month.)
Now we have a film version of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness. Both the book and the movie, directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), start with an image of perhaps the simplest, most effective control mechanism modern society has: a red traffic light. When it turns green, cars surge forward, except for one whose driver has suddenly, inexplicably gone blind. Or rather, all he sees is white light, a “pearly sea.”
From there, the film — set in a nameless, nationless city — unfolds in a way that’s predictable yet chilling. Blindness spreads from the driver to the man who helps him home (and steals his car) to the occupants of the ophthalmologist’s office where he seeks help. Recognizing an epidemic, the authorities confine the blind in an abandoned mental hospital. But new shipments of people keep arriving. With no one there to see them, the blind undress publicly and let their living space fill with filth. Some of them seize control of the food rations and begin to make hideous, dictatorial demands of the others.
In other words, they behave like any random group of people placed in a small space with insufficient resources and no oversight. (Would all those pretty castaways on “Lost” be quite so cooperative if they didn’t get mysterious food deliveries?) However, there is one person in the hospital who still has sight: the ophthalmologist’s wife (Julianne Moore), who feigned blindness so she could accompany him. Realizing that her ability could make her and her husband (Mark Ruffalo) targets of violence, she hides it and bides her time. Meanwhile, she has to watch as her husband, who’s resentful of her sight, gravitates toward a beautiful blind woman (Alice Braga).
It’s hard to tell a story about blindness in a visual medium. In his novel, Saramago uses run-on sentences full of dialogue to disorient readers. Though we hear what characters say, they remain without precise characteristics or names — generic without being caricatures, like people in a dream.
On film, it’s harder to keep things vague, so Meirelles unsettles us using visual techniques that will put off some viewers. Often he focuses tightly on the foreground, leaving the background of the image a white blur; sometimes he makes us look at a black or white screen for several seconds, reminding us how much we depend on our sight. Some scenes are all dimness, sound and fury — which is for the best, no doubt, in one involving brutal rape.
Moore is a progressively stronger presence as the film goes on, changing from a scared, secretive woman into one who’s willing to take control. She alone dares defy Gael García Bernal, playing a wormy little sociopath who declares himself “King of Ward Three.” (Though he can’t see her, he warns her he won’t forget her voice — plausibly, given the intensity Moore can invest in a few simple lines.) Other actors are less effective, such as Yusuke Iseya as the first blind man, who sounds as if he may have learned his lines phonetically.
It’s hard to find positive resolution in a dark fable, and the film’s ending comes too abruptly to seem earned. Its touching scenes of human camaraderie do little to mitigate starkly horrible images, and it doesn’t have the satisfying dramatic momentum of a thriller. Given all this, its audience will be small. Some critics have argued that the blindness epidemic is a facile metaphor or offensive to real blind people — but they may be missing the point. The film is a grimly powerful depiction of a breakdown scenario many of us obsess about — perhaps, these days, with good reason.