The level of talent associated with Blindness makes it difficult to believe that this movie just slipped in and out of theaters without anyone really noticing. Here’s a high-concept movie with an enviable cast of critical all-stars (Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal), directed by Fernando Meirelles, a man with an intimidating track record (City of God, The Constant Gardener), and somehow it’s a mostly forgotten cinematic moment of 2008. The truth is that Blindness inadvertently earned its lack of notoriety by failing to be either laughably awful or a masterful parable rife with new and important sociological ideas. This isn’t for a lack of trying though. Blindness aims high, and frequently achieves what it is intending to. It’s well acted, visually ambitious, and occasionally quite insightful. However, for every fresh insight, there’s a stale idea to match.
The film opens with an unnamed man (the characters in this movie are left nameless, deliberately, one assumes), in an unnamed city who suddenly loses his sight. What’s particularly curious is that the man’s lack of sight manifests itself as a radiant light. From here, Meirelles wastes no time establishing the one of the movie’s nearly constant visual motifs. Shots are frequently interrupted with Meirelles’ interpretation of the blinding light, which often give the movie an otherworldly mood, even as it spirals further into despondency.
And boy is there a lot of despondency. As it turns out, this “white blindness” is contagious and pretty soon, everyone who has come into contact with the initial blind man, directly or indirectly, has it. The afflicted are soon rounded up and herded into a former hospital, where they are given minimal instructions and no medical or personal attention. They are ordered to break up into wards and basically govern themselves, which includes the division of necessities among the separate groups. And this is where a movie already loaded down with conflict descends into a nightmarish hellscape.
Ward one is led by an optometrist (Ruffalo) whose wife (Moore) is curiously immune but keeps that between her and husband. The optometrist wishes to govern his ward pragmatically and in so doing keep tensions between his ward and others to a minimum. Problems arise, beyond the newly blind group’s inability to clothe, bathe, or properly clean themselves, when the hot-headed leader of ward three (Gael Garcia Bernal) somehow acquires a gun and begins dictating the terms of food distribution. Initially, ward three merely demands jewelry and electronics in exchange for food, but naturally the quarantined only have a finite amount to offer. The next logical step, at least by the grim standards of this movie, is that ward three demand women in exchange for food.
Of course, we’ve all read or seen some mutation of this scenario played out in various pop-cultural forums, and these works usually leave the audience with a less than favorable view of humanity. In this regard, Blindness is no different from its predecessors. You’re probably going to want to stock up on non-perishables when it’s over, but Meirelles and screenwriter Don Mackellar (working from Jose Saramago’s novel) deserve credit for finding a rich way to explore commonly used themes.
Strange as it is to say, the idea of a mass blindness opens up a great deal of room for narrative and thematic maneuvering (and sporadic moments of truly dark humor). Sudden blindness with no assistance reduces everyone in the movie to a frequently childlike state. The scarcity of resources and division of the afflicted into random groups serves as a potent metaphor for geopolitical relations, especially when the group with the weapon takes over. Julianne Moore’s immunity amongst the sick forces her into the position of the almost supernatural caregiver, giving the film a touch biblical significance.
In case it’s not apparent, Blindness is bogged down in metaphor, and while the filmmakers typically manage to juggle these separate elements skillfully, the movie occasionally buckles under it’s own allegorical weight. Certain plot strands are barely addressed, such as Moore’s unexplained immunity, which could have added a little clarity to the picture. These, among others, are the reasons critics weren’t screaming from the mountaintops about this movie, but you shouldn’t be put off. Blindness is an uncommonly good movie that occasionally lets its ambitions get in the way,