Heavy-handed sci-fi parable lacks clear vision
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover
Fernando Meirelles’ new film Blindness premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival earlier this year to a good deal of bad press. One major edit job and half a year later, and the film is ready for its theatrical debut. It’s difficult to imagine what changes the film has undergone in the last six months, because it still feels like a hopelessly self-important, cluelessly tone-deaf sci-fi parable about ... um, we’ll work that out later.
Based on the acclaimed novel by José Saramago, the film drops us into a purposely generic fictional cityscape (shot mostly in Canada). This alone is troubling, as it removes the film from reality, making it harder to care what the hell happens. At the height of rush hour, a young Japanese man (called First Blind Man) is suddenly stricken with an inexplicable form of blindness. Turns out this blindness is contagious, and a number of people who cross FBM’s path are eventually rendered sightless as well. Chief among these sufferers is an eye doctor (called Doctor), played by Mark Ruffalo, and his wife (called Doctor’s Wife), played by Julianne Moore. The ill-defined government of this panic-prone metropolis, looking and acting like Big Brother in the touring company of 1984, tosses all the newly blind people into a crumbling sanitarium and leaves them to fend for themselves with no doctors, no food, no medical kits, nothing. In today’s world (post-Katrina or otherwise), this seems kinda ... well, unrealistic.
Sadly, that’s not the first nor the last unrealistic element in Blindness.
Turns out Doctor’s Wife isn’t really blind but is only faking it to stay with her hubby. Does it actually occur to anyone that the woman who is immune to this plague of blindness might actually be able to provide a cure for it? Hell, no. This is a heavy-handed allegory about the Human Condition; your precious logic has no place here. The vast majority of Blindness takes place within the claustrophobic walls of the quarantined sanitarium. Within weeks, the overcrowded survivors are reduced to squabbling, excrement-filled micro-kingdoms at war with one another. By recasting Lord of the Flies with a bunch of yuppies, Blindness offers a thuddingly obvious allegory about how, you know, mankind is made up of savage monsters waiting for the slightest excuse to rob, rape, kill and probably cannibalize one another. ... Honestly? People are mean? That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?
Ultimately, as his apocalyptic vision veers toward the post-apocalyptic end of the spectrum, Meirelles’ targets become more and more scattershot. Racism, war, marital infidelity, authoritarian politics: My god, it’s like we’re all blind! I so get it now. In the end, though, the film changes its mind and tries to prove that maybe some people (three-time Oscar-nominated actresses, anyway) are overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Moore’s character does spend most of the movie acting like a saintly Mother Theresa. If it didn’t take her 70 percent of the movie to do something even remotely smart, it might have been easier to sympathize with her. Over the course of the film, she could have prevented countless murders and rapes (including her own), but she demurs for no good reason other than it serves to drag out the narrative. Lady, start wasting some of these blind motherfuckers, already!
Meirelles, who showed extraordinary promise with City of God and The Constant Gardener, tries lots of visual tricks to bring this film to life. Blowing out the colors and fading to white, he attempts to mirror the characters’ helpless lack of sight. But it just feels forced and gimmicky.
In fact, there isn’t a moment of Blindness that doesn’t come across as completely off-the-mark. It’s like watching a film in which the soundtrack is a few seconds out-of-sync. Nothing matches up properly. The tone is stilted, erratic and confusing. No one on screen behaves like a normal human being. Danny Glover (as Man with the Black Eye Patch) attempts to explain things in a really pompous voice-over at one point, nearly turning the whole exercise into a unintended comedy. (Reportedly, the original version of Blindness was filled with this voice-over, which is a truly terrifying thought.) Things get dirtier and nastier and more thoroughly unpleasant, and the script still tries to pile on inappropriate subplots like love triangles. (In the middle of all this? Are you kidding?) The ending smacks of lazy deus ex machina and feels like the author, having delivered his moral with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, has dropped the mike, dusted his hands off and left the building shouting, “Peace out!”