In Blindness, the bleak new film from acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles (City of Men, The Constant Gardener), a major city is struck with an epidemic of "The White Sickness," a highly contagious disease that causes sudden loss of vision. Health officials react swiftly; within hours, hazmat-suited military personnel are quarantining infected individuals in a dilapidated sanitarium.
The afflicted are abandoned to cope with their blindness in utterly foreign, unsanitary surroundings. Conditions worsen, supplies dwindle, and violence escalates. Only one person is an eyewitness to the chaos—the wife (Julianne Moore) of an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) who has faked her own blindness in order to stay with (and help) her afflicted husband.
Blindness is based on a disturbing and promising premise, one that allows the filmmakers to comment on the response of authorities to crisis (think Hurricane Katrina) and ask important questions about the resiliency of social structures. What crimes will humans commit if no one can see them? What conventions of civility will dissolve in the absence of extrinsic authority? How quickly does the instinct for self-preservation obliterate more altruistic tendencies? And how blind are we to injustices going on all around us?
Unfortunately, Meirelles and screenwriter Don McKellar are in such a rush to explore these Big Picture questions that they overlook important details like plot and character development. The result is a stylistically and thematically self-conscious film that shows flashes of brilliance, but ultimately fails (quite spectacularly) to live up to its obvious promise.
Blindness is based on the celebrated novel by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago. According to enthusiastic reviewers, the book offers a richly nuanced description of the gradual breakdown of civility among the makeshift "Society of the Blind." But in the film, this descent into chaos is depicted in a too-rapid montage that has the patients behaving like ordinary citizens one minute and defecating in hallways the next.
Meirelles likely means to suggest that the disintegration takes place over time, but the editing is confusing. As the situation quickly worsens, the asylum looks more littered and chaotic in one shot and less in the next. A simple detail like the men's facial hair growth in the absence of razors could have helped establish lapsed time, but the characters (including Ruffalo's doctor in particular) are erratically bearded.
In defense of the filmmakers, much of the confusion is no doubt intentional. Novelist Saramago never names the city or even the people in his story (referring to his protagonists as "The Doctor," "The Doctor's Wife," and "The Woman in the Dark Glasses"), choosing instead to let the reader, like his blind characters, be in the dark about certain details. Saramago even eschews traditional punctuation, evidently in order to keep the reader in a disoriented state appropriate to the story.
Meirelles seems to be aiming for the cinematic equivalent of Saramago's literary approach, leaving many aspects of the story ambiguous and dissolving numerous scenes into light at critical moments. In the opening scenes, a patient describes the world he sees (or can't see) as "swimming in milk," and the director floods much of the film in hyper-saturated whites from that point on. (Even Julianne Moore's normally red mane is a washy blonde throughout the film.)
At times, the visual and narrative disorientation is effective, forcing the viewer to viscerally engage with the characters' frustration. But too often, the story progresses illogically and people act without apparent motivation, leaving the viewer frustrated with the film itself rather than involved its story.
Another confusing and self-conscious aspect of Blindness is the scattered narration from Danny Glover's "Man With the Black Eye Patch" character. An earlier version of the film (which aired at Cannes) reportedly featured this narration much more extensively, but the filmmakers cut significant portions of it in response to negative audience feedback. It's hard to imagine that the result—a few instances of random and unexplained intrusion by an overly mannered narrator—is an improvement over the previous version.
Glover is compelling when on-screen, as is most of the multi-ethnic cast. Moore is appropriately wan as the lone witness to the indignities, while Ruffalo studiously does what he can with his character's confusing development. Gael García Bernal is oddly charismatic as the opportunistic (and ultimately evil) bartender who takes control of the sanitarium's food supply and plunges the community into violence. But no amount of acting skill can compensate for an underdeveloped storyline that forces characters to act and speak in ways that are not convincingly justified by the story.
For most of its 120 minutes, Blindness assaults its audience with a relentlessly bleak vision of humanity. A protracted scene of gang rape is (cleverly) more graphic aurally than visually, but is, in this reviewer's estimation, intolerable. The director seems to relish the horrific, as when the camera repeatedly lingers on dogs eating a human corpse. Undoubtedly there is a place in filmmaking for unflinching portrayals of mankind's depravity and the brutal realities of the world. In the case of Blindness, however, the viewer is asked too suffer too much and receive too little. (And pay for the privilege.)
No doubt every reviewer who sees Blindness (produced, ironically, by Focus Films) will dig deep for his or her own special vision-related play on words. Here is mine: Blindness is a film I wish I hadn't seen.Discussion starters
- In the movie, the response by health officials to the blindness epidemic seems brutally callous. How do you think your city officials would respond to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease? How would you respond?
- Blindness seems to suggest that many individuals will act in selfish and potentially criminal ways when freed from societal restraints. Is this your understanding of human nature? Is this consistent with the biblical view that all humans are fallen? (Romans 3:23) How about with the view that each person is made in the image of God? (Genesis 1:26)
- Ultimately the doctor's wife and the receptionist had to take some human lives to save others. Were their actions justified? Why or why not? Should they have acted sooner? Why or why not?
- Is there "blindness" within your community to certain individuals or needs? What is the appropriate response?
- How would you evaluate the director's handling of the rape scene in Blindness? Was it necessary to the story, or gratuitous? How does a Christian viewer evaluate the difference between truthful storytelling and graphic-for-entertainment's-sake sexual violence?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Blindness is rated R for violence including sexual assaults, language and sexuality/nudity. Take this rating seriously. While a lengthy gang rape scene is explicit more through dialogue than visual elements, there are also numerous graphic portrayals of consensual sexual activity and nudity.
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