“This story does not have one truth, and all the different interpretations make sense…This is a story that must create a lot of questions, but give no answers… It raises issues about man’s evolution, makes us reflect critically, but points in no specific direction…”– Director Fernando Meirelles as quoted
in the Miramax Films Press Release for Blindness
I begin with this quote in particular, not just because it sort of underscores the pretentious nature of the film, but more importantly because, I’m all for films that challenge the viewer in putting the pieces together, testing our intellect by making us come up with meaning whether it’s discovering a political allegorical subtext in No Country for Old Men or trying to figure out just what the hell is going on in Memento.
And while admittedly despite my high tolerance for art house fare that doesn’t offer an easy way out for the viewer, when we’re presented with something like the cinematic adaptation of Nobel prize-winning author Jose Saramango’s 1998 novel Blindness and adapted by Tony award-winner Don McKellar, we at least want the reassurance that the filmmaking team knows precisely the film they want to make. For--if it had been handled with far more clarity—no doubt the film would’ve resonated better with the audience. We get the sense that there’s a larger purpose to the epic scope of the storytelling, which surrounds a nightmarish outbreak that suddenly inflicts mankind when ordinary citizens begin losing their ability to see (view the trailer).
Beginning with an Asian motorist, soon the bizarre loss of sight (which at first we assume is some sort of nerve induced hysterical blindness) becomes something far more horrifying altogether. And soon-- with the pacing of an action film—more people are infected as they come in contact with the initial man until eventually Sandra Oh’s World Health Initiative quarantines them all into a militaristic compound where they’re left to fend for themselves in a situation that evolves into something resembling at first a prison and then eventually a concentration camp.
While I’m unfamiliar with Saramango’s source material, I understand that it did keep one major storytelling device in serving up a cast of nameless characters known only by a mere description whether it’s Alice Braga’s The Woman with the Dark Glasses or Danny Glover’s The Man With the Black Eye Patch.
The film’s protagonists consist of talented actors Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore as The Doctor and His Wife, respectively. While Ruffalo’s eye doctor loses his sight after trying to treat the first sufferer of what has been since dubbed the “White Sickness,” his devoted wife fakes the same condition in order to journey to the compound and take care of her husband.
Although initially Moore seems to be just playing the supportive and loving sidekick to Ruffalo’s heroic character who becomes the unceremonious "Ward Representative" of their first ward, intriguingly it’s Moore who becomes the true hero of the film. As the leader with sight, she fearlessly takes on Gael Garcia Bernal’s monstrous King of Ward Three—although much too late in this critic’s opinion—as the increasingly dangerous King begins holding the compound’s governmental resources for ransom in the form of money, jewelry, and eventually women.
It’s at about this time that the film seems to truly begin relishing in the utter degradation, depravity, and filth of the situation. Of course, heightened circumstances can bring out the best and worst in people when they are tested but the point could’ve been made in much less than 125 grueling minutes as we begin feeling utterly sickened by seemingly endless frames consisting of naked, dirty starving individuals, urine and fecal matter, a horrific group rape scene that outdoes Kubrick’s infamously brutal “Singin’ in the Rain” routine from A Clockwork Orange and more.
And that is not to say that illustrating a dystopia on film doesn’t have value as Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant Children of Men did this much better and even the less-than-stellar gore fests of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and Stephen King’s The Mist raised far more questions about the dangers of scientific experimentation, group think, and discovering our true nature at the worst of times. Yet, structurally, something is awfully amiss in Blindness. And honestly, it’s an extremely disappointingly exploitative, utterly ugly film that instantly made me want to watch Meirelles’ first groundbreaking effort, City of God (one of the greatest films of the 00’s) and its Oscar winning follow-up The Constant Gardener just to remember the talent he possesses, not to mention do more research on the original book.
For, as we the press exited into the lobby from the darkness of the film which just sort of stops after a surprisingly important yet far too briefly explored plot point, we’re left wondering just what it all means and if Meirelles actually knew in the first place the type of film he wanted to make. My theory is that he was so fascinated by the idea and the topics therein that he neglected to fine-tune it into a workable thesis statement, thereby closing audience’s minds instead of opening them for discussion.
Although one critic joked that if he was forced to watch it again, he would kill himself and another said it was one of the worst films he’d ever seen, I wouldn’t go that far, yet it’s one of the biggest letdowns of 2008. In fact, trouble was predicted following its premiere as the Opening Night Selection at the Cannes Film Festival which left critics divided and Blindness was sent back for reworking (Entertainment Weekly, pg. 55; 8/22/08).
Yet despite the changes, we’re left not just thoroughly confused but realize at last that we really don’t care. And while I was charged with the argument that if it remains in your head hours later, it was a good film, I disagree. For it remained there precisely because it wasn’t a good film as my head was filled with the grotesque imagery of fecal matter and sexual assaults, and wondering why the celluloid was wasted in the first place.
Although my guess is that it will most likely be viewed as a religious parable, an indictment on governmental ineffectiveness in the wake of a tragedy, a commentary on the darkness of human nature, an allegory that illustrates the terror of Nazi like group think, or a warning about where we are headed. Yet, ultimately asking us to sit through something as endlessly bleak, overwhelmingly brutal as Blindness where in the end the questions it raised and the filmmaker’s intention are greater than the sum of its horrible parts, makes Meirelles’ opening quoted goal seem pointless, shallow, and a bit sadistic in the end.