The most recent example of bleak chic, Fernando Meirelles' mostly harrowing adaptation of José Saramago's international best-seller Blindness mixes the high-velocity pace and stylishness of the Brazilian director's breakout City of God with the Portuguese author's thinly metaphysical thriller. Unflinching at best and treacly at worst, the film unveils its apocalyptic scenario with visceral intensity but lacks the emotional sophistication to rise above schadenfreude kicks.
Set in a gray and metallic, modern metropolis (actually São Paolo, later mixed in with Montevideo), the film — like the novel — opens with a man (Yusuke Iseya) in a car stopped at a traffic light who suddenly loses his vision. Another man (screenwriter Don McKellar), who drives him home and later steals his car, also falls prey to the mysterious "white blindness," as does the first victim's doctor (Mark Ruffalo). Soon, the entire human population finds itself engulfed in a milky sightlessness, except one: the doctor's wife (Julianne Moore).
Meirelles, working with his Brazilian cinematographer, César Charlone, establishes the plague's outbreak with visual flair, evoking the experience of the ivory blindness through blurry and brightly overexposed frames. The images are dreamily beautiful and attempt to give the viewer a palpable sense of the protagonists' plight (which the novel evokes with its lack of punctuation and stream-of-consciousness prose). But the film doesn't spend much time probing the actual terror of the affliction or the cruel randomness with which it strikes. Curiously, it's not the all-encompassing whiteout that freaks out the characters as much as the conflicts that arise between them.
Like Saramago, Meirelles doesn't care about the medical or psychological specifics of blindness, and he isn't interested in the fate of any one human. (There's obviously a grand metaphor here — people are "blind" — but it's pretty simplistic.) Like the city in which they live, none of the characters have names (or back stories).
The allegory works occasionally, as in the film's artful attention to naked bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages. But when the six or so characters we've met before — representing a convenient array of races and backgrounds — coincidentally show up in the same hospital room in the same large detention center, the theatrical setup awkwardly recalls any number of Twilight Zone episodes.
However, as the quarantine facility overcrowds with more bodies, waste and detritus, Blindness finds its way. Muck and madness take over. Yes, hell is other people, especially when trapped in a run-down mental hospital. The tension ratchets up another notch when a wild-eyed Gael García Bernal arrives as a self-christened "king" and takes control of the hospital's food supply. When he and his gang eventually demand women in exchange for sustenance, the film reaches its apex of moral degradation and misanthropy.
From there, it's all downhill. In the meandering third act, cleansing rains and precious resolutions wash away most of the trauma — this is a Miramax movie, after all. Even Children of Men, 2006's exhilarating, similarly apocalyptic adventure, had a hopeful ending. For a more trenchant Armageddon, there's Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf; for more tongue-in-cheek, there's Blindness scribe Don McKellar's directorial debut, Last Night. Adding to the pileup, John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road comes out in November. We just can't get enough of this stuff.
Panned in Cannes, Blindness has since lost a reportedly ponderous voice-over spoken by Danny Glover, who appears as a sage with a none-too-subtle eye patch. Blindness is strongest when it's not trying to say anything but instead is conveying the sheer desperation of its characters. Whether we're watching Moore (excellent here in primal mode) commit an act of bloodthirsty vengeance with a pair of scissors or escape a horde of starving humans who can smell her stash of food, Blindness pulls viewers into its nightmarish vision and dares us to watch how humankind fails to cope in times of chaos. And considering the current headlines, maybe that's insightful enough.