I saw Blindness by myself, with nothing to occupy me on the way home but a copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Bad idea. This movie requires a funny friend or mindless magazine afterward to decompress. I don't shy away from depressing films, but Blindness is one of the bleakest things I've ever seen on screen. At times bleaker even than Babel or Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. But cheery isn't really an option when portraying a dystopia plagued by a mysterious epidemic "immune to bureaucracy."
Based on the novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago and directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardner), this apocalyptic allegory is imperfect but powerful. Reminiscent of Children of Men and old zombie flicks, Blindness begins with a man going blind while driving. His eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) is puzzled by the affliction, in which eyesight is obscured by white rather than cloaked in dark. But soon the doctor is also rendered blind by the contagion, so
To prevent an epidemic, the blind are quarantined — first by the handful then by the hundreds — in an abandoned sanitarium. Apart from the viewers, the only person who can see what filth results when a bunch of newly blind people are essentially abandoned by their government is the doctor's wife (Julianne Moore), who retains her sight but keeps it a secret. As food rations become scarce and the conditions more squalid, the ward devolves into a sinister, Lord of the Flies-like atmosphere ruled by an opportunistic villain (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Painted in a washed-out palette, the horror is heightened by the fact that as viewers, we're prevented from getting our bearings. Some of the techniques are predictable but effective — interludes of white between scenes, an overall jumbled tone — while others are downright arresting. We never learn the characters' names, and the nameless setting — shot in Sao Paolo, Tokyo, and Toronto — is beautiful and disorienting.
But Meirelles also draws attention to our sightedness by making us witness some sickeningly ugly truths — actions that you can imagine unfolding in such a dystopia but that are very difficult to watch nonetheless. (The people next to me walked out during a particularly disturbing scene.) The horrors are not without a message — to me, how hunger and suffering can drive people to immoral ends — but I certainly didn't leave the theater feeling good. Though I haven't read Saramago's novel, I'd imagine that message of Blindness is better made through literary allegory than a hyperrealistic film. But depending on your movie tolerance, Blindness is worth seeing for both its beauty and its brutality.
Photos courtesy of Miramax