Blindness

You may worry that the moviefication of political non-English fable fiction from a Nobel laureate will translate into earnestly leaden Oscar bait. You are a wise one.

Just bear in mind the inevitability of a movie version of Blindness, José Saramago’s 1995 novel in which, save for one woman, a city’s entire population goes blind all of a sudden and hell accordingly breaks loose.

This movie version, adapted by director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and actor-writer Don McKellar (not much of note, really, except an awkward performance in Blindness*), has a particularly contemporary — if blurry and dimming — view of the world. It appreciates, for instance, that everything is DIY nowadays: zines, home improvement, the apocalypse.

The latter has been a favorite in movies for a while, but lately things have escalated. How Blindness ranks on the DIY-catastrophe scale between 28 Days Later and The Happening probably can not be determined objectively, but you can at least feel safe calling it the best arty disaster thriller starring Julianne Moore since Children of Men. Of course, it is the only arty disaster thriller starring Julianne Moore since Children of Men.

It is she who plays that one woman who can see, and it’s a fine, variously self-degrading performance, if not an entirely memorable one. Her husband, played by Mark Ruffalo, in a fine, variously groping performance and an importantly humanizing one, is an ophthalmologist who has no idea what’s going on and can’t really help any of the victims but can empathize when he becomes one of them.

Soon they find themselves quarantined by glib military thugs in an abandoned hospital, with new arrivals streaming in daily. One is Danny Glover, who gathers the group around him, narrates what he knows of the world outside — that “either the panic spread the blindness or the blindness spread the panic” — and lets everyone listen to a gentle tune on his handheld radio. Another is a possibly miscast Gael García Bernal, who emerges as the menacing opportunist and self-proclaimed “King of Ward 3,” hoarding food and selling it off for cash and valuables–and, when those run out or simply prove worthless, for sex.As you’d expect, mass blindness brings the shape of human nature into sharp relief.

This leaves open the question of whether Moore’s character is better or worse off for being able to see all the squalor and misery surrounding her. But the movie has an unfortunate way of making that question more intellectual than emotional, more theoretical than palpable.

It’s not for any lack of visceral detail. No, weirdly, what’s off-putting about Blindness seems to have to do with its abundance of visceral detail. Nearly drowning his commendable cast in a soup of shadow, bleach and blur, Meirelles lays the technique on so thick that he can’t seem to see his own forest for the trees. However archly reverent of its literary source material this movie is, what it ultimately achieves is a kind of allegorical myopia.

*An update (July 23, 2009), and an apology to Don McKellar. Although I do still believe that Blindness didn’t quite bring out his shine, I also must confess to my own myopia: I hadn’t until just recently seen the extraordinary Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, in which McKellar plays an insufferable theater director. His performance is rich and hilarious and most certainly “of note.”