|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 03 October 2008|
José Saramago’s novel "Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira" seems to be well-regarded, and has a premise interesting enough it’s not surprising it was turned into this film, directed by Fernando Meirelles from a script by Don McKellar (who appears as an actor, too).
Brazilian Meirelles is best known in the U.S. for “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener;” unfortunately, “Blindness” is not going to increase his fame. This was the opening movie at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, but it had a poor reception. It’s no wonder. The movie is listless and pretentious; in the middle stretches, it’s slow and tedious. The cast is above average, and Meirelles has elicited extremely naturalistic performances from them, including Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore (not that it’s hard to get good acting from those two).
It’s set in an unnamed, vaguely international city full of tall buildings, laced together with freeways. On a normal morning, one driver (Yusuke Iseya) accidentally ties up busy traffic—by suddenly going blind. For him, the world doesn’t go dark, it suddenly goes all white, “like swimming in a sea of milk.” A passerby (screenwriter Don McKellar) at first seems to try to help him, but instead steals his car. Later, the newly blind man says, “what kind of person steals from a blind man? He should go blind!”
He does. Starting with the blind man’s wife (Yoshino Kimura) and the optician (Mark Ruffalo), the entire world gradually but swiftly goes blind. There’s one exception—the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), who keeps it a secret from all but her husband that she can still see. Why? It’s not clear; perhaps she didn’t want to have to be the leader for the legions of the blind, perhaps she’s evading responsibility.
The latter seems the most likely explanation; the story is clearly, almost belligerently, a metaphor—we’re all a bit blind to the world around us, the movie seems to be saying. We have to work together, as a small group of blind people, led by the sighted doctor’s wife, learn to do here, but that’s not until the end of the movie.
At first, unaware that the blindness is spreading, officials house the newly blind in a hospital ward, and it’s there that the drama mostly plays out. The doctor and his wife try to get the various wards to cooperate, but this isn’t easy. A man (Danny Glover) with a patch over one eye—which he keeps even after going blind in his remaining eye—fills us and the people, in on what’s going on in the outside world, where everyone (or almost everyone) has gone blind.
In a neighboring ward, a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) declares himself the “King of Ward 3.” He’s helped by a man (Maury Chaykin) blind since birth, which gives him an advantage over the more helpless newly blind. They’re brutal and greedy, demanding women from the other wards for the food supply they (somewhat mysteriously) control. Things get worse, so the doctor’s wife finally has to reveal that she can still see.
“Blindness” isn’t really science fiction, though it is in the realm of fantasy; no explanation is offered for the sudden blindness, it just happens as if by magic. This premise is vaguely similar to the opening of the classic novel “The Day of the Triffids;” in that, a shower of exploding meteors, visible to the entire world, blinds all who watched it. (There are some logical exceptions.) Then walking, carnivorous plants, the Triffids, heretofore an interesting novelty, have their day—they can easily feed on the blind. “Blindness” could have used a few walking, carnivorous plants. It’s remarkably unexciting, even occasionally boring.
The visual style is unusual but itself becomes boring after a while. Scenes fade to white, not black; the entire world is suffused with a milky light, with people often merely dark gray smears against the bright background. Colors are drained away, so much so that at times the movie doesn’t seem to be in color OR black and white. This is striking, but only for a while; eventually, this off-white and gray world becomes wearisome; we long for any color. As the movie slows down and the tone becomes shrill, we can easily lose our patience; everything is happening in these cramped, dark (and yet light) wards, we rarely see the outside world. Toward the end, a band of survivors leaves the hospital, and the movie briefly comes to life. A sudden rainstorm thrills and delights the blind people, uniting them on a level we haven’t seen before. But by that time, the movie has worn itself out.
It’s clearly serious and well-intentioned, with at times excellent use of sound (appropriately enough); the side and back speakers swarm into life, the music becomes suffused with notes so unusual they might be from the Aborigine instrument the didgeridoo. But this aural aliveness is a contrast with the dead, blank white-and-gray look of the film.
Movies that are primarily metaphors do need to have a coherent plot, and “Blindness” doesn’t let the audience down in that regard. Instead, it fails to make the nature of its metaphor very clear. Is the only point that we need to stop and look at the roses? To embrace our fellow passengers on planet Earth? Did these people deserve to go blind? If so, why didn’t the doctor’s wife’s eyesight fade out, too? We never get a clear idea of why she was spared the “white sickness,” as news reports call the plague of blindness. She doesn’t seem more virtuous or more attentive to the world around her than her husband.
Just about the time you start to wonder what happened to all the pets, we’re out in the streets at last, seeing a pack of dogs devour a corpse. But one dog, a perky Airedale, ignores this tasty treat and instead befriends the doctor’s wife. Is this dog the canine equivalent of the wife? Capable of rising above its fellows? Maybe.
The characterizations are mostly very thin; each person’s (limited) personality is revealed with their first words, and no one seems to undergo much of a change by the end of the movie. Yes, a young prostitute (Alice Braga) does appoint herself the guardian of a frightened child; yes, the doctor’s wife (finally) takes charge of a helpless group. Yes, at the end, everyone has what amounts to a big group hug. But isn’t there a less cumbersome way to make the point?
The movie lacks any lightness; there aren’t even any wry, self-pitying jokes. The one welcome note of humor comes when someone unthinkingly asks for the others to vote by raising their hands. There’s little excitement—even the mass rape scene takes place off camera, and is more grim than intense.
Bring on the walking carnivorous plants.