The prospect of suddenly going blind is enough to fill most people with dread. And going blind is exactly what happens to the people of an unnamed city, perhaps even the entire world, in Blindness, the new film by Fernando Meirelles based on Jose Saramago’s excellent novel of the same name. Blindness is a powerful allegory, meditation on the relationship between “sight” and the miracles of faith, on the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity and transcend the confines of what it means to be human.
One day, unexpectedly, a young man sitting in his car during rush hour traffic suddenly goes blind. He screams. He panics. Motorists honk and curse. Passersby stop to help. The twist here is that instead of seeing the usual darkness associated with blindness, all the man sees is white light. “It’s like swimming in a bowl of milk,” he laments. One of the passers by, a thief with an eye out for the main chance, offers to take the man home, only to steal the guy’s car later. The ophthalmologist to whom the man’s wife takes him is perplexed as to the cause of the man’s sudden loss of sight, and is at a loss to help him.
One by one the people of the city go blind, including the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and the car thief (co-writer Don McKellar). Convinced the city is under attack by some infectious agent, the government moves with lightning speed to contain it. The afflicted are rounded up like cattle and quarantined in an abandoned sanitarium, left to fend for themselves. Only one person appears to be immune to the disease — that is the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), who chooses to accompany her husband into isolation.
That people should suddenly lose their sight after being plunged into white light is an irony that begs comment. Granted it is possible to become blinded by too much light, but that is a literal truth and I’m speaking metaphorically here. Saramago is pointing out the very real human tendency that people can be “blind” even with their “vision” intact. “They have eyes, yet they see not.” The biblical, religious, and even spiritual allusions contribute to Blindness being a work of uncommon depth.
It doesn’t take long before tensions break out among the quarantined victims — within minutes of “recognizing” each other, the young man jumps the car thief. The sheer absurdity of watching two blind men tussle over a stolen car on the ward floor while a serious health crisis is raging on around them is enough to remind one of the “theater of the absurd” and of Samuel Beckett in particular.
Despite the fact that many critics have trashed this move (obviously I’m not one of them), I assert that Blindness is a praiseworthy film. Performance wise, I must single out the exceptional portrayals of Moore, Chaykin, and Bernal. Moore has the enviable talent for using understatement and restraint to hammer home the drama and conflict her character is subjected to. She doesn’t waste her energy or words or gestures or emotions. And for that, she is all the more believable. Chaykin and Bernal are unflinching as the self-appointed dictators of the new world order. Bernal is a feral mad dog. And Chaykin whose character is a genuine blind man has never been more oily. Contact with him would compel you to wash your hands. The rest of the cast is adept as well.
Acknowledgment must also be given to the remarkable soundtrack, original music composed by Marco Antonio Guimaraes. Note that Guimaraes’ composition is not typical of the traditional film score. Highly original and evocative, it is more of a soundscape. Alternately serpentine, predatory, plaintive, melancholy, and wondrous, Guimaraes’ piece weaves itself into your head and stays there. It has been a long time since I heard anything as inventive and sublime as this.
Blindness does have its shortcomings, the chief of which is its length. The narrative momentum breaks down because Meirelles draws things out too long in many scenes. He makes a point and then continues to hammer it in over and over — I get it already. On the other hand, one very effective scene, the rape sequence, was executed well and is an integral part of this movie, one I’m glad they kept. I was concerned about it because advanced word had it that the principals were considering cutting it from the film. And that would have robbed the film of much of its impact.
Because of the rich subtext, there is much to ponder in Blindness; that is what makes it such a great movie — it makes you think. If the dark could be read as the soul, and light as the spirit, then ask yourself: is this a world in the throes of a spiritual crisis? Is the dreaded white sickness a scourge to humanity or does it serve a higher function, as I believe it does? Decide for yourself.