Directed by Fernando Meireilles. Starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal, Yusuke Iseya, Don McKellar, Yoshino Kimura, Maury Chaykin. (2008, R, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 3, 2008
Blindness opened Cannes this year, and it didn’t do well there. The print included a supposedly disastrous voiceover by Glover (since stripped from the final cut), and it was perhaps undone by expectations that it might be a different kind of movie – a Big Idea kind of movie. It’s an adaptation of the 1995 novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and at first blush it seems to fall into the same mold as Children of Men: a serious film that uses the sci-fi premise of a near-future dystopia to comment on the modern-day dystopia already upon us. But the trouble with expectations is that they tend to numb one to what’s really at hand. Blindness, the film, pushes the Big Ideas aside for a brutalizing exploration into the hard fact that humans, in the right circumstances, will turn desperate and even barbarous. The catalyst is an outbreak of blindness in a city that is intentionally vague, its citizens casually multinational (as is its terrific cast, which does a lot within the restrictions of limited screen time). Ruffalo plays an ophthalmologist who unknowingly spreads the infectious disease from its first case to a waiting room full of patients and on to concentric circles of panicky outbreak. None of the characters are named; they are listed in the credits, as in the source novel, with identifiers such as the Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife. The latter (played by Moore) is introduced whipping into submission a tiramisu for her distracted husband. When he wakes in the morning with the “white sickness” (the blindness is unique in that the infected see white, rather than black), she makes a rash decision to feign blindness, too, in order to join him in the government-issued quarantine. (One senses the decision was borne as much from helplessness as self-sacrifice.) The sick are shipped off to an abandoned insane asylum and more or less left to fend for themselves (impossible to watch without thinking of the Superdome), and there the secretly sighted Doctor’s Wife becomes witness to unending awfulness as conditions deteriorate and a turf war ensues. We become witness, too, and it’s a long, hard slough: Meireilles – no stranger to harsh climes, having previously touched down in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (City of God) and a Kenya ravaged by disease and Big Pharma (The Constant Gardener) – unflinchingly charts every slipped rung down to the bottomest depths of human degradation. Frequent cuts to white screen aside, there is very little lightness here. Meireilles plays on that whiteness, in one instance using it to soft-shoe a morally complicated sex scene, then abruptly cutting to full-color to expose it for what it really is, which is the desperate rutting of the doomed. There are no pulled punches here, and within that same morally complicated universe, Meireilles and screenwriter Don McKellar (who co-stars) demonstrate a scope and a sensibility expansive enough to meet every devil with some sympathy and every joy with commensurate sorrow. All this, I think, would be unbearable without Moore, who masterfully characterizes the devoted wife’s metamorphosis into a heroicism both unwanted and unheralded. It’s a rattling, heartrending performance in, yes, a long, hard slough of a film – one that is well worth the journey, if not a repeat trip.