In a world where funding and philanthropy for the arts is down — disproportionately down — and there is a glut of bad movies in superficial genres, it’s refreshing to be held rapt by an exceptionally good piece of art. Such was the case when I viewed an advance screening of Blindness at the DGA last week. This movie will be in theaters at press time, and I highly recommend it, but do not confuse this film with its pop-horror distant cousin Quarantine.
Based on the eponymous book by José Saramago, the story was commandeered with a radical vision for the cinematic version of it by director Fernando Meirelles. This vision, coupled with the compelling nature of the story aligned within the hybrid genre (part art-house, part psycho thriller, part love story, all humanity play) allows for an ultimate understanding of the stressed human spirit not only in crisis but also in total chaos.
Imagine the upheaval left in the wake of hurricane Ike. The slideshows on news websites transport us to surreal and almost post-apocalyptic settings: singular homes left in the midst of a vast nothingness, boats piled up nowhere near any body of water, cars floating and people swimming where deep water has never been… This scenery, devastation, and despair only prevail when things go really bad, as in the case of mass Blindness.
The dreary tale opens with a lone driver spontaneously going blind and the people around him either trying to help him or take advantage of the situation, only to subsequently and with quick succession go blind themselves. Their lives eventually become intertwined and otherwise threatened by their ensuing quarantine and collection into a deserted mental hospital that becomes the black hole into which their lives and dignity are sucked.
As the blind numbers increase, so does the level of frustration that boils over into fighting fringed with outright anarchy. The central characters, played convincingly by Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, are respectively an upstanding, if a bit nerdy, eye doctor and his rock of a wife (who pretends to be but never goes blind). They, along with Danny Glover’s Man with the Eye Patch and a few others, provide the fulcrum of moral muscle around which the de-sighted masses spin wildly and fall apart. When one faction demands that the other wards pay for the dwindling, rationed meals sent in by the heath authorities’ paramilitary mob, for instance, they raise the stakes to demanding their women when the money and jewelry run out. Who is worse off: those without sight or the sole witness to all this carnage?
Meanwhile, the world outside has imploded. The streets are now dumps littered with corpses, glass, and the detritus of an abject and global derailment. When the police force quits, the core group with the guidance of the doctor’s wife makes its exit and navigates the mess to find food and bond in the comfort of their own home. The rain comes and the sight returns.
Simply put, perhaps, but this brings us back to the vision.
Coming out of the darkness is always easy and hopeful — that’s normal. Returning from the abyss back into the frying pan, however, is never uncomplicated and still fearful. The wife is nearly trampled after raiding a basement pantry of a market, only to set off the heightened olfaction of the blind zombies holed up in there. An impression of hope after such a collective collapse of humanity is undeniably sunny in a harsh, grey world in hard times.
“This is a film based on nothing,” Meirelles has said. “It’s all invented — a generic city with characters who have no names and no past who get a disease that doesn’t exist.” The movie, with Brazilian, Canadian, and Japanese production platforms, is saturated with its sentiment. The chic look of the film, with its muted color and thoughtful yet restrained sets, is a character unto itself. The city, with all its moral and morbid decay, beckons.
The visual carries the utmost paradox in a story about not seeing anything. It is important because the filmed interpretation of the story is decidedly linear and easily read. The characters are straightforward, even hokey at times, but they tell a tale of utter helplessness and how they deal with it — head-on and most willingly. What choice do they have?