The world is going blind, and, yes, I realize you’ve just flashed on DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but get that out of your head right now. There’re no meteors, no killer plants, in fact, no definitive explanation for why this disaster is happening, save for that it’s some kind of contagion.
The template director Fernando Meirelles has in mind — cuing off a novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago — is a lot less globe-hopping, humanity-on-the-brink, and a lot more Lord of the Flies. The bulk of the film is set in a government-run warehouse for the afflicted, tracking how a hermetic society devolves as the world outside abandons the imprisoned to their own devices. Yup, it’s allegory time, paralleling the government’s treatment of the poor and showing how the less fortunate, given no other option, will eventually turn upon themselves — a familiar theme for the director of CITY OF GOD.
The problem is that while CITY set its vibrant style in the streets of Rio de Janeiro — and even Lord got its kids out into the open on a deserted island — BLINDNESS for a good stretch contains its characters in a few, admittedly large, prison-like wards. The overwhelming claustrophobia — one can almost smell the stench of trapped humanity by the end of this chapter — works against a story that wants to give us full measure of how society would cope with such a disaster. Meirelles tries to compensate by bringing in archetypes: some loving couples — one affluent and Asian (Yusuke Iseya and Yoshino Kimura), one affluent and not (Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore — whose character also conceals the fact that she hasn’t succumbed to the disease); a couple of scumbags (Don McKellar and Gael Garcia Bernal); a whore (Alice Braga); and Danny Glover (who’s practically an archetype in himself). Unfortunately, they never feel like much more than the symbols they represent.
Usually, I’m not adverse to a director going small-bore — too much human detail can be lost in the sturm und drang of elaborate CG effects and giant crowds. But some stories demand the broader scope that film can provide, and this tale begs for at least a somewhat wider focus than is given here. Towards the end of the film, some quarantine survivors make it back out into the streets of their city, and Meirelles finally gives us the survey of the world gone to hell that he’d denied us earlier. In the closing acts of BLINDNESS — particularly in a beautifully rendered rainstorm that serves as a kind of mini-epiphany — he gets us close to the humanity that the rest of the film only pretends to portray.
BLINDNESS (Miramax, 2008; 121 mins.) Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Danny Glover.