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Dustin Putman

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Blindness  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Mitchell Nye, Gael Garcia Bernal, Don McKellar, Maury Chaykin, Martha Burns, Tom Melissis, Sandra Oh.
2008 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, language and sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 3, 2008.
If a film can be both flawed and a triumph at the same time, then "Blindness" fits that description. Based on the Nobel Prize-winning novel by Jose Saramago, this is an unnerving, disorienting fable of the darkest order. In an unnamed city, a man (Yusuke Iseya) suddenly goes blind while waiting for a stoplight to turn green. He is driven home and helped up to his apartment by a good Samaritan who then steals his car. When the man's wife (Yoshino Kimura) returns home, she takes him to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and discovers that nothing is detectably wrong with his eyes. If that is the case, though, then why has the sufferer's normal sight been replaced by milky pale light?

A parable about how closely civilization straddles the line between organization and chaos, sanity and madness, at any given moment, "Blindness" also does not discount the possibility for hope and the capacity human beings have to adapt to unforeseen, even tragic, circumstances. When the first man stricken with blindness turns out to not be a unique case, the world soon crumbles as an epidemic of "white sickness" spreads. After the eye doctor loses his vision, he is hauled off to an abandoned and quarantined hospital, the number of prisoners rapidly rising in number. Tagging along with the doctor is his wife (Julianne Moore), still sighted but unwilling to abandon him. As the only seeing person in the building—a fact she chooses to keep hidden from the other detainees—her attempts to help everyone are noble, but impossible for her to handle. She at first lays witness to the atrocious squalor of their surroundings—corpses are strewn down hallways, feces litter the floors and walls—and then, in an act of desperation to save the lives of those in her ward, is faced with something much, much worse.

Director Fernando Meirelles (2005's "The Constant Gardener") is merciless for large chunks of his storytelling, refusing to baby-feed his audience and determined to place them in the frame of mind of his unnamed ensemble of figures. In order to do this, he must look and consider both sides of the fence. Just because the wife of the doctor can still see does not mean that the life she is experiencing is any less foreign than the one the blind people are facing. Neither knows how to react to their new, dire lifestyle, and to further acclimate this point Meirelles shoots his scenes one of two ways: in a washed-out, sickly whiteness, or in areas and spaces that are disconcertingly obscure and barely lit. Struggling to see what is going on, the viewer comes as close as one could expect to living in the body of the film's characters.

Where "Blindness" leads in the second half shall be left for the individual viewer to discover. Nevertheless, it deserves mentioning that the picture does a part-scary, part-awesome, part-devastating, and always-convincing job of depicting a once-bustling metropolis as a ghost town where traffic has ceased and the remaining residents now wander the streets like zombies, scavenging for anything edible to eat. The quiet horror of these sequences is appropriately discombobulating and drenched in jittery tension. If nationwide blindness did occur, one imagines it wouldn't be much different than how it's played here.

Visual and thematic symbolism is unmistakable, at times heavy-handed. Still, there is more than enough substance to munch on (i.e., the breakdown of societal compassion, and the indomitable side of one's spirit as hardships weigh down upon him or her). When the doctor's wife enters the safety of a church, she finds all the holy statues blindfolded. Walking back out into a rainstorm, the water washing their sins clean, she and the rest of the characters are metaphorically reborn. Spiritual iconography such as this is perhaps too on-the-nose for its own good, and yet the picture does not preach or, interestingly, go so far as to mention religion in the dialogue. Screenwriter Don McKellar (1998's stunning apocalyptic "Last Night") does somewhat miss the mark on his dodging of conversations and debates that would naturally go down in such an instance. Where has this mysterious blindness come from? Is it a warning to us? The end of times? Why is the doctor's wife the only one evidently immune?

The characters are nameless, billed in the credits in general terms ("Doctor," "Doctor's Wife," "First Blind Man," "Woman with the Dark Glasses," and so on). Julianne Moore (2006's "Children of Men") is remarkable, sometimes a one-woman show in the way that she stands apart from the others and tries with all her might to keep a brave face. The evolving dichotomy of her relationship with her doctor husband is intriguing, loving before the blindness sets in, then distant, and finally in the process of rebuilding as they come to terms with their altered points-of-view. Mark Ruffalo (2007's "Reservation Road") plays her spouse with a calm and natural reserve, his strength cracking only when he starts to doubt his worth as a handicapped man and a companion.

Moore, Ruffalo and the remainder of the lead performers—all of them efficient and well-cast—help to smooth over one pressing oversight: the characters' pasts. Next to nothing is learned about any of them save for what they expose through their actions, and whatever families any of them have are ignored. You would think they might want to phone a parent or Great Aunt Linda down in Alabama at a moment like this, but no, it is failed to be mentioned. Undernourished scripting details aside, "Blindness" does not confuse its grand trajectory. Grim, provocative and tough to take at times, the film is not frothy fare at the movies, nor should it be. Director Fernando Meirelles has a wealth of timely points to make, following up his underlying cynicism with a subtle but powerful introduction to a wide spectrum of human emotions and capabilities, from joy to regret to fear to love to ultimate perseverance in the face of uncertain catastrophe. None of the characters have an explanation for what has happened, but they press on all the same. What choice have they got?
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman