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Friday, Nov. 14, 2008
It's all doom, gloom and blind panic in latest disaster film
By KAORI SHOJI
When chaos hits, no one is morally or philosophically unscathed. Such is the moral of "Blindness," based on Portuguese author Jose Saramago's 1995 best seller and adapted to the screen by Brazil's Fernando Meirelles ("City of God").
The chaos in this case is a sudden epidemic of blindness that strikes an entire city, leaving the afflicted and the government equally helpless to cope. From the opening scene of the very first victim, "Man in a Car" (played by Yusuke Iseya), the story gloomily prophesizes that when the chips are down, people will behave like crooks or animals. At a busy intersection, the Man finds his vision awash in a milky white light — he can't see anymore. A seemingly friendly passerby (Don McKellar, who's also the screenwriter for the film) drives him home, only to steal his car. A few minutes later he, too, is struck by blindness.
There's a certain meanness to Meirelles' gaze that's rather an oversimplification of Saramago's original, philosophical tone; as he paints this apocalyptic fable, there's a distinct I-told-you-so smugness running like a sneaky undercurrent beneath the surface moralizing. And there is a lot of moralizing, tempered with not so subtle references to the general state of human living, starting with the overriding theme: We're all blind.
From the scene of an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) suddenly besieged by people ranting that they can't see anymore, before he too goes blind and gives into desperate panic like everyone else — to the sage, intellectual pronouncements voiced by the "Man With the Black Eye Patch" (Danny Glover) such as, "In many ways you know, blindness is a state of mind," the tone of the whole package swings between ineffectual helplessness and ineffectual posturing. Either way no one is saved, much less able to see their way to the nearest restroom.
Speaking of which, Meirelles draws the process of large-scale panic giving way to the dreary realities of filth and sewage with chilly assurance. The government, as soon as they're alerted about the epidemic, rounds up the afflicted and herds them into hospitals in the manner of Nazis marching Holocaust victims into gas chambers. In makeshift quarantine facilities (most of them hastily vacated hospitals and clinics), people are allowed to live but deprived of all dignity and within hours the restrooms have become disaster zones, pipes are busted and the ceilings leak with scum.
Anarchy prevails until the self-proclaimed "King of Ward 3" (Gael Garcia Bernal) seizes power by hoarding all the food and demanding valuables or sexual favors in return for nourishment. The raping and pillaging perpetrated by the King and his band of men are senselessly brutal — and if Meirelles wanted to drive the point that humans have no need for war or politics to make them to behave like depraved soldiers — he certainly succeeds.
Shining like a brilliant light amid the sordid muck is the ophthalmologist's wife (Julianne Moore) — inexplicably, she has retained the power of sight, but pretends to be blind so she can be with her husband in the quarantine clinic. Being able to see in a mass of raving blind people, however, proves much more difficult — and disgusting — than she had bargained for, and her efforts to restore some semblance of order are, literally, shattered.
Meirelles has assembled an able cast, but they're hindered by the uniform gestures and physical peculiarities (that caused an offended uproar among genuine blind people) expected of the blind. It's up to Moore (who is, at least, unencumbered by physical awkwardness) to carry the film — and the clinic. But it's thankless, uphill work, and Meirelles does nothing to make life easier for her. One of her self-imposed tasks had been to prevent the rape incidents on the premises, but she fails miserably and then falls prey to one herself.
This horrific, no-exit story recalls the claustrophobic queasiness of other apocalyptic films ("Children of Men" for example, in which Moore also had a prominent role) but those were sunk in dungeon hues of despair and darkness. "Blindness" is lit by a retina-piercing whiteness — it's like standing on a sunny ski slope without sunglasses. Never has hell seemed so bright, and here its very brilliance mocks any attempt at hope.