It opens beautifully: a car stalled at a traffic light that’s showing green. The cars behind honking in frustration. Pedestrians glancing to gauge the severity of the problem – then taking a harder look, because this doesn’t seem to be an automotive malfunction, the driver appears to be in some distress. A passer-by goes up to him to see if he can help (he’s played the Canadian actor Don McKellar, who also adapted Nobel prizewinner Jose Saramago’s novel for the screen). The driver – an Asian man – says he’s gone blind, just like that, waiting for the light to change.
“Showing”. “Glancing”. “Look”. “Seem”. “See”. “Light”. Vision is such an active means of engaging with the world, to be deprived of sight strikes us as a particularly cruel calamity. But that’s exactly what happens to this Asian man, out of the blue, for no apparent reason. The passerby – McKellar – volunteers to drive him home, and he does. Then threatens to steal the car (or is it just a misunderstanding?). He escorts the blind man to his apartment. Checks out the minimalist zen. Unimpressed. He leaves him there. He steals the car.
All this is from the novel, and it’s… not quite dazzling, perhaps, but intriguingly poised between promise and threat, and shrewdly located in a cosmopolitan twenty-first century city that’s both familiar and not (it could be South America? Canada? Asia?).
More good things: the blind man is taken to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who is stumped by his explanation. The next day, the doctor wakes up to find he too has been struck blind. And so, we discover, has every one of the patients in his waiting room at the time of the Asian’s visit. The contagion spreads faster than panic. The car thief goes blind. It seems like half the population is herded into an empty hospital, where they are surrounded by the military and left to fend for themselves… (By weird coincidence, there is a very similar situation in this week’s horror release, Quarantine – the US remake of Rec.)
Not everyone is afflicted though. The doctor’s wife – none of the characters is named – retains her vision, but pretends to be blind so that she may stay by his side. Played by Julianne Moore, she’s a plucky everywoman, quietly taking care of everyone in her ward (they include prostitute Alice Braga, the Asian and his wife, Iseya Yusuke and Kimura Yoshino, and McKellar the thief) and trying to see that the overcrowded building doesn’t descend into anarchy.
It’s at this point, I think, that Blindness begins to go off the rails. A novel – in the hands of a writer as prodigious as Saramago – can take us into so many interior worlds, but the film has to stay on the outside, with the exterior appearance.
Fernando Meirelles – the Brazilian director of City of God and The Constant Gardener – attempts to go beyond this with several distorting lenses and “white out” effects. In the festival version I saw he also fell back very late in the day on a voice over narration by Danny Glover’s character, but from what I understand he may have dropped this rather half-hearted device.
At any rate, the story’s pretentiously vague allegorical nature begins to eclipse what might have been – in the hands of someone like George Romero – a gripping, visceral horror thriller. It’s an irritation that Moore’s immunity is never explained, but it’s more problematic that the social breakdown that follows feels more like a claustrophobic adaptation of Lord of the Flies performed by an over-aged cast.
Gael Garcia Bernal is suitably loathsome as the fascistic “King of Ward Three”, who starts hogging the food and demanding tithes from the other wards – but Meirelles fails to convince us of this prison-world or the rules the people in it live by.
The ending feels equally arbitrary and unsatisfying. Blindness may be great literature, but as a movie it just left me nostalgic for The Day of the Triffids.
Titles related to this article