After two consecutive universally acclaimed, multiple-award-winning films—2002’s City of God and The Constant Gardener from 2005—Fernando Mereilles was perhaps due for a letdown. And his latest movie, Blindness, is certainly a drop-off—less focused, occasionally over-stylized, and, at times, difficult to watch. But it’s far from a failure; the talented Brazilian director has employed an ambitious method to tell an ambitious tale, and he succeeds often enough that we can forgive his occasional lapses in judgement, moments when his considerable reach exceeds his impressive grasp.
Based on a novel by Jose Saramago, Blindness is the story of a society overtaken by a sudden pandemic, a mysterious illness that strikes victims blind, their vision lost to a consuming field of white light (thus is it termed the “white sickness”). Mark Ruffalo is a doctor who attends to the disease’s first victim, only to fall blind himself; Julianne Moore is his devoted wife. When the government reacts by hastily quarantining all who are stricken, Moore’s character feigns blindness herself so she can follow her husband to the shelter. As the quarantine fills with more of the diseased, and with victims left without supervision to fend for themselves, she finds herself the only sighted person in a sea of humanity run amok on sickness and fear, people reduced to their basest and most desperate instincts.
From there, the movie plays much like the mutant offspring of Lord of the Flies and Moore’s previous pandemic thriller, 2006’s well-crafted Children of Men, in which she co-stars. This film, however, is a fable, a fact announced by several sometimes silly storytelling conceits. The setting is ambiguous. And none of the characters have names (Ruffalo is simply “The Doctor,” Moore “The Doctor’s Wife”); even when newcomers enter the quarantine shelter, they identify themselves only by their profession (“I am a policeman,” “I am an engineer”).
And the circumstance of their quarantine—no supervision other than a set of instructions running on a loop, and with the compound surrounded by a cadre of trigger-happy soldiers threatening to shoot anyone who tries to leave—is played for the sake of establishing the moral and philosophical petri dish that lies at the heart of the film, thematically speaking, rather than for realistically depicting any reasonable society’s idea of disaster response.
It all makes for some awkward juxtapositions—especially given that the film’s other elements are almost brutal in their verisimilitude. Trapped along with the afflicted in the claustrophobic dankness of the quarantine, we can almost taste, smell, and feel the fetid squalor of this makeshift prison, where the inmates grope and hack at each other in paroxysms of lust as well as violence, where the air is rife with sweat and rot and desperation, and floors slick with garbage and human waste.
But where Mereilles and screenwriter Don McKellar go most astray is in failing to set a solid focus of study for this allegorical human laboratory experiment. Is its purpose to consider, a la Lord of the Flies, what atrocities humans will heap upon one another, once freed from the rule of law and its attendant moral sanctions? Is it to look at how the removal of that most vital mode of sensory perception, en masse, affects our notions of moral order and our sense of community? Or is it simply to look at how one individual—the Doctor’s Wife—copes with all the various quandaries inherent to being the only one with vision in a society of the blind? The latter theme is perhaps most prevalent, but overall Blindness changes its focus somewhat schizophrenically, following one philosophical tangent, then another, leaving us with a hazy sense of what larger lesson we ought to take from what is otherwise a powerful film.
That it is a powerful film—sometimes stomach-turningly so—saves Blindness from the confusion of its mixed messages. In that respect, it recalls Mereilles’ artistry in City of God, where he captured the ceaseless poverty and sun-baked hopelessness of the slums of Rio de Janeiro in vivid detail, albeit with splashes of hope and humor. There’s hope in Blindness, too, if little humor—though we have to take on nearly 90 minutes of very disturbing narrative to get there.
Also worth watching is Moore’s performance: As an actress, she is called on to bear nearly as many psychic and emotional burdens as her character, and she does so admirably. She is not only the heroine, but also the moral pivot point, the emotional fulcrum—both window and mirror to every other significant player’s reality. We can only imagine that, by filming’s end, the veteran actress must have been spiritually drained.
So, yes, Mereilles’ latest is a mixed bag, but a mixed bag that’s still more than worthy of consideration—if for no other reason than that it strives to do perhaps too much, asking too many questions, rather than too little and too few.