Fernando Meirelles's new film Blindness begins with the rush and push of urban life; traffic, crowds, activity, purpose. And then, one man cries out: "I'm blind." He eventually makes it to an ophthalmologist, but there's nothing physically wrong with his eyes; he simply can't see. "It feels like I'm swimming in milk," he explains, and we see, through his eyes, the blank, empty swirl of what used to be the world. And then another person says they are blind, and then another, and soon those few, frightened voices form a chorus of chaos as "the White Sickness" spreads like wildfire and leaves a ruined world in its wake.
Adapting Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, Blindness feels like a curious mix of highbrow literary aspirations and lowbrow genre fiction; as the White Sickness spreads from person to person in a clear chain of connection and things fall apart, it'd be easy to dismiss Blindness as Dawn of the Dead for NPR listeners or Outbreak for grad students. Meirreles has taken a similar two-pronged approach before -- The Constant Gardener is an excellent critique of the failings of modern capitalism that also works as a strong, suspenseful thriller -- and while Blindness may not work as well as that film, it's also a clear case of a film, and filmmaker, failing to hit the mark occasionally only because they've set the bar so high for themselves. When the ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo), soon suffering from the same blindness that struck his patient, is taken into quarantine, his wife (Julianne Moore) refuses to be separated from him; she claims to be blind as well so she might stay at his side. And soon, Ruffalo and Moore are locked in one of three wards at an old hospital that's being made into a makeshift quarantine center, where the halls are soon crowded with the helpless victims and the outside world provides less and less help. Moore and Ruffalo maintain her ruse, so that she can best help without being revealed. We've all been told that "in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"; but, as Shakespeare reminds us, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," and Moore learns both those things the hard way. As the wards descend into anarchy and violence, with Gael Garcia Bernal declaring himself "the king of ward 3" and enforcing a savage rule upon the populace, Moore has to decide how she can best use her secret to help her husband and the others she's protecting.
As in Children of Men, Blindness gives us an allegory that compares to the modern world just as much as it contrasts from it. Regrettably, Blindness (adapted by Don McKellar, who also plays a thief afflicted with the White Sickness) is burdened with a narrator (Danny Glover) whose voice-over not only feels like it's taken directly from the book but actually pushes us away from contemplating the themes and scenes of the film. It's one thing to suggest that life's busy nature makes us all overlook the true nature of the world; it's another thing to hear Glover intone, during the film's initial moments, how "I don't think we went blind; I think we always were. ..." Leaving that insight, and others like it, unsaid might possibly leave us to contemplate it for ourselves; having those things spoken out loud just inspires derision.
Blindness works best when it captures the hideous, horrible chaos of the plague's aftermath; when Ruffalo wakes, sightless and scared, Moore reassures him: "It's going to be okay." And yet she -- and we -- have no reason to think that it will ever be okay again; civilization makes us certain promises, and it's terrifying to think that they might have been lies. And while the sweeping allegory of Blindness created a lush, captivating story on the page, film's a slightly less forgiving medium; we find ourselves asking questions not of character and metaphor, but, rather, of plot logic and possibility, and those sharp inquiries poke holes in the film's tension.
But McKellar and Meirelles are not, to their credit, afraid of showing the ugly things that spring from the film's central event; we're shown a world of muck and filth and waste and rotting flesh as the ward slips into chaos in the absence of law and minor medical problems spiral into catastrophes. Near the end of the film, Blindness shows us the possibility of love and grace in the presence of terror and the unthinkable; that would feel like a cop-out, if the film hadn't also taken pains to show us the possibility of terror and the unthinkable in the presence of love and grace beforehand.
There are some strong performances here, as well, even if they're hidden under the film's big ideas and bleak poetry; Ruffalo's captures a strong man unmade by fate, while Moore is quietly impressive; her character becomes curiously empowered by events, and she comes into a new sense of herself like a flower blossoming in harsh rain. Bernal pulls off the pure, wicked charm of an utter bastard (his impromptu sing-along over the hospital's public address system is a brilliant, bleak, brutal joke) and veteran character actor Maury Chaykin gets a great scene where his amoral character is forced to confront the possibility that he isn't as amoral as he thought, or hoped, in the midst of a nightmare.
The descent into savagery is depicted with brutal force in Blindness; many viewers will retreat from that fall's hideous strength through questioning smaller moments in the plot and character motivation, and Blindness unfortunately leaves them plenty of room in which to do so. But while Blindness can be faulted for many things, it also has to be respected for its ambition, craft, and effort; Blindness shows us a world of wide-eyed sightlessness, and it does so through a fierce vision that only occasionally loses focus.