I would imagine the set designer for the movie Blindess needed a hot chocolate and a hug after work. Or, if he or she is like me, a stiff drink and some comfort food. The halls of the ward in which much of the central action occurs are quickly turned into a combination dumpster and sewer. The industrial walls and concrete floors that start grey and white are soon covered in nauseating browns and greens and yellows.
The ward is filled with the victims of the white blindness, an infectious disease that suddenly renders the afflicted with an inability to see anything but a milky white. Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, on which this movie is based, is a spare allegory that makes up for its lack of punctuation with a simultaneously harrowing and hopeful narrative.
But spare and allegorical is sometimes difficult to translate into the dense and literal medium of movies. Normally, I would appreciate how closely the movie follows its source material, but here I think it does not serve the film well.
For example, I’m having trouble figuring out how to reference the characters in this review because the movie, following the book’s lead, gives them no names. Even when the government has begun forcibly quarantining the blind in a mental institution, the inmates don’t use their own names to introduce themselves, something that works in book but in the movie is just odd.
I’ll use Saramago’s nomenclature. Mark Ruffalo plays the doctor, an ophthalmologist who examines the first blind man (Yusuke Iseya), and finds himself blind the next day.
The movie follows a number of people caught up in a small wave of infection emanating from this group, including a boy, a woman with dark glasses (Alice Braga), and an old man with an eyepatch (Danny Glover), a group that plays more as a cast of archetypes than characters.
The doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore) is in the quarantine with her husband but has somehow avoided being infected herself, leaving her to be the only one to watch their surroundings collapse into squalor.
The movie centers on her, but is mostly an exploration of the short distance between civilization and savagery. The problem here is the film is heavy on the latter without enough of the former. The movie succeeds in being horrific, effectively and repeatedly, especially after a group of vicious blind inmates arrive and hold the institution’s food hostage.
But every time Blindness attempts to temper this despair with hope, it fails. Emotional moments fall flat because we have no real understanding of these characters, or the pacing of the film is too clipped to give us any sense of how the moment is earned.
Grotesquerie is easy; especially when the filmmaker is willing to linger for minutes on an orgiastic rape while sparing only seconds on an “inmates listen to music” scene pulled straight from Shawshank Redemption. With added shit and nudity.
A movie with a name Blindness should be visually striking, and this one is. It use a limited palette of washed out whites and greys that fits well with its mood. And its set design is fantastic. I’ve already mentioned the squalid institution, but other places, such as in the first blind man’s home are just as impressive. His apartment is a great example of modern design, but the lighting in it is perfect for creating both black and white blindness for us as viewers.
Director Meirelles is too fond of using lack of focus and makes some mistakes with the consistency of the point of view shots, but otherwise handles the camera deftly.
Blindness’s horrors are not always as ugly as that mentioned above. The film gives smaller disasters that, in the capable hands of the performers, convey their brokenness. But just as often it gives on-the-nose attempts at metaphor, such as a clumsy commentary on race, or the actual use of the phrase “We need a leader with vision.”
Blindness is by no means a bad film. But I just wish that director Fernando Meirelles, along with despair, was able to give us the joy he was so obviously trying to.