When I left the screening of Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness, someone (who has yet to learn that I really don’t like to discuss a film the minute it’s over) asked me if I’d liked it. It was obvious she was hoping I would validate her dislike of the film. I told her, “I don’t think it’s the sort of movie you like exactly. I thought it was good, but I wouldn’t say I liked it or was entertained by it.” Searching for some common ground, she persisted, asking me if I’d been bored by the film. I truthfully said no, which seemed to satisfy her even less.
The following day someone else complained to me that the film “never even explained why these people went blind.” I asked her, “Would you really have been any wiser if they’d told you the blindness was the result of spores from outer space or something?” Well, no, she admitted, but went on to outline a possible different thriller plot—along the lines of Wolfgang Peterson’s unintentional laff riot Outbreak (1995). I then explained that Blindness isn’t that type of movie. It’s an allegory about a government trying to rid itself of a problem by locking it away and forgetting about its very existence. It’s an examination of the depths to which desperate and debased people can sink, and finally it’s about the indomitability of the human spirit. Put that way, she had a different outlook on what she’d seen. But did she like it? I doubt it. And I don’t like it so much myself. But I admire it.
Blindness—adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago—is the kind of awkward, overly ambitious and not wholly successful film that only a filmmaker of some considerable vision would attempt to make. And there’s no doubt that Meirelles is a filmmaker of vision, but in this case that vision translates into a film that is both so extremely unpleasant that you may not want to watch it, and yet somehow so detached and allegorical that it doesn’t really linger in the mind the way it should. If a film is going to rub your nose in excrement, it ought to have the power to haunt you afterwards. Somehow—for all its boldness—Blindness lacks this.
The film—set in a nameless city in a nameless land (the establishing shots suggest something South American)—starts with a man (Yusuke Iseya) who causes a traffic jam when he inexplicably goes blind at a stoplight. A helpful man (Don McKellar, who wrote the screenplay) gets him home and promptly steals his car. Soon the car thief is blind and then the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who examines the first man goes blind, as do other patients who were in the office. The sole exception seems to be the doctor’s wife, who insists on accompanying her husband and the others as they’re parceled off into a crumbling, ill-equipped old hospital by way of quarantine. They are then kept under guard, given scant rations, no medical attention, and are just generally forgotten into oblivion by all but their guards.
Helplessness (often exaggerated) and despair take over as the garbage and filth accumulate. Worse happens when the members of Ward Three decide to commandeer the hospital, because one of them, the self-proclaimed “king” of the ward (Gael García Bernal), has a gun and another (Maury Chakin in a very disturbing performance) is a long-time blind man who is more adept at getting around than the others. They hold up the other wards, demanding money and jewels to buy food. When the money and jewels run out, they force the other wards to prostitute their women. Not surprisingly, violence erupts. All this is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.
It all leads back to the outside world, where the fallacy of being able to ignore the problem of the epidemic by shutting it away is immediately apparent. Ultimately, what the film seems to be giving us is a vision of hell on earth (which often looks a lot like 28 Days Later …), but that’s not what Meirelles is finally after. He’s in search of that seed of humanity that must somehow exist at the bottom of all this, that indefinable spark that makes human beings human. Does he find it? Well, I’m not sure how to answer that without giving too much away, so I’ll say he may have found it, but whether the film is effective in actually conveying that is another matter. And that’s what keeps Blindness in the realm of a good, noble effort, rather than ever being the great film he obviously intended. Rated R for violence, including sexual assaults, language and sexuality/nudity.