Blindness is a fascinating but flawed drama that is nevertheless worthy of a second look.
A man goes blind. Within 24 hours, more have followed, victims of an epidemic: no cause, no cure. The government locks down the city, quarantining the blind in an abandoned asylum and leaving them to fend for themselves. The only person unaffected is the wife of an optometrist (Julianne Moore), who feigns blindness in order to stay with her husband (Mark Ruffalo) and help him adjust to this devastating new life.
Set in an unnamed city in what might be the present day, Fernando Meirelles has created a film that deftly undermines the audience’s ability to anchor themselves in events. The result is a queer kind of dislocation – an unnerving intellectual blindness that brilliantly apes the feeling of being left adrift in a suddenly hostile and unpredictable world.
As the government struggles to cope with a rising tide of panic, the blind are left to fend for themselves. Despite the efforts of the doctor and his wife to maintain some sense of civilisation, things take a 'Lord of the Flies'-style turn for the worse and a violent nihilism takes hold. Led by Gael García Bernal, a gang of inmates seizes the food, determined to extract a high price from the rest.
What follows is a near masterpiece of human drama – a pitch-black morality play in which the characters are stripped emotionally and physically naked. Without demonising disability (as some have claimed), Blindness offers an unflinching look at our capacity for evil and the destructive power of despair.
Here, in the asylum, the action is almost unwatchably ugly. Meirelles couldn’t have made this film three years ago: nobody would have believed it. But in a world that has witnessed Hurricane Katrina and heard whispers from the Astrodome in the dark days that followed, Blindness' bleak cynicism is all too credible.
But on either side of this middle 40 minutes the film makes misjudgements. Meirelles and DoP César Charlone run the metaphor of light and dark into the ground with a series of tiresome visual tricks. And problematic too is the relationship between Ruffalo and Moore. It is already under strain when the epidemic takes hold, but what begins as a brilliant study of gender politics, role reversal and sexual frustration gives way to a typical Hollywood conclusion in which disability is just a journey of self-improvement.
Overshadowing all this, however, is an excruciating voiceover from Danny Glover that might have been a cruel joke on Morgan Freeman but turns out to be a genuinely insulting narrative gambit that treats the audience – hitherto granted much respect – like children. The film’s final shot, meanwhile, sacrifices real courage for timid ambivalence.
So close to greatness, Blindness is a fascinating but flawed drama that is nevertheless worthy of a second look.
Mixed word of mouth in Cannes, but trailers had a juicy Children of Men vibe.
Genuinely difficult to sit through – sometimes for very good reasons; other times for very bad.
Sadly, it’s the flaws that become more apparent over time.