BLINDNESS, based on the novel of the same name by Jose Saramgo, takes away one of the five sense in order to examine the larger picture of humanity. It’s not the newest of conceits, nor is it the most original. Removing one item from ordinary life and speculating on the outcome is a time-honored premise. LORD OF THE FLIES, to which this tale hews most closely, covered much the same ground, though in that case, it was civilization itself that was removed allowing the castaway schoolboys to run wild as they remade their world. In this case, it’s an unnamed country and when the blindness epidemic settles in, humanity, in the best sense (you’ll pardon the pun), is the first to go.
The White Plague, as it is called, appears quickly, taking seemingly random, similarly unnamed victims, a high-class call girl (Alice Braga), the doctor who treated her early symptoms (Mark Ruffalo), a pharmacist. When the scope of the Plague becomes clear, the government panics, placing all those infected in quarantine camps and asking the quarantined to think of their internment as showing proper public spirit. When the doctor wakes up blind, his wife (Julianne Moore) lies to the medics sent to collect him and goes with him. The building where they find themselves is a concrete bunker, surrounded by armed guards and razor wire, and with no means of outside communication except for an emergency phone that, predictably, has no one on the other end. A classic cross-section of the population arrives, including a thief (Don McKellar), the man whose car she stole (Yusuke Iseya), a plucky little boy (Mitchell Nye), a formerly half-blind old man (Danny Glover) and that call girl. Things are civilized in their ward, but the other wards have different organizational principles, and the self-proclaimed king of ward 3 (Gael Garcia Bernal) takes control of the food rations with a mix of rabble-rousing within his own ward, and shooting off the gun he found at those in others.
The cause of the plague is unimportant in the context of the film. A sudden collapse of civilization is the metaphor for an intelligent if somewhat academic consideration of not just morality, but also of dignity and how the two intertwine. What it encompasses, how fluid they become, and what, if anything, is an absolute in a world where survival is very much determined by a nervous finger on a trigger, the willingness to submit to a stronger personality, or the ability to accept help with the spirit in which it is offered. For all the subsumed violence of which each character is shown to be capable, the moral compass becomes an imperative to personal survival. Survival, in this context, is presented in its purest form without the luxury of having a higher authority to do the dirty work. Courage takes on new meanings and new applications, and love, which is the heart of what drives each of the protagonists to survive, becomes too precious to be bound by the definitions of a life that has disappeared.
Director Fernando Meirelles and McKellar, who adapted the novel, have created a wondrously visual experience in telling the story. The screen is bleached out, high-contrast shadows giving way to an infinity of whiteness from which shadows with vague, indistinct black shapes emerge and into which they melt back. Moore moving surely surrounded by those who cannot while keeping the secret of her sight from them and from the guards who watch them from a safe distance. They were also smart enough to acknowledge that the tropes that the plot follows, the way wards turn into fiefdoms with differing governments, the preying of the strong on the weak, the extremes of behavior that a new set of rules brings out in everyone. The film, instead, concentrates on the emotional journey of Moore’s character, and she comes through with a performance that is ferocious in its intensity. When that unnamed character finally breaks down, it is not over the filth, the tyranny, it is not over the burden of being the only sighted person, rather, it’s when she realizes that she has forgotten to wind her watch and now there is no way to tell what time it is. The anguished sob in her voice a she struggles to get out the words is deep and big enough for the loss of everything she has known before.
BLINDNESS is perceptive, thought-provoking, and ultimately, if not sweetly, life-affirming. The way people who have been deprived of music react when given it back, the quick close-up of faces that are only a shade brighter, but brighter nonetheless, with toes unable to resist tapping. The way the doctor and his wife find détente with a brief but momentous gesture. In stories such as this, the true question at the end is whether or not survival is worth the price and whether the film has made the case effectively. Here, there is no prevaricating in answering both questions in the affirmative.