Presumably the novel by Jose Saramago that’s the basis of Fernando Meirelles’ film had something potent to say about the depths to which humanity can sink in times of crisis and the goodness of which it’s still capable in the direst of times—after all the author won a Nobel Prize for literature. But if so, it’s certainly been dissipated in the transition to the screen. Stylistically fussy and dramatically confused, “Blindness” is a dreary and unpleasant picture, both grubby and pretentious.
It launches immediately into the narrative as a driver on a crowded metropolitan street (Yusuke Iseya) goes suddenly blind, but in an unusual way—everything turns a milky white rather than black. After an encounter with a carjacker, he’s taken by his wife (Yoshino Kimura) to see an opthamologist (Mark Ruffalo), who can find nothing physically wrong. Soon the man’s wife and the doctor fall victim to the malady too, as will the thief, the doctor’s receptionist, and all the patients in his waiting room, along with many others. They’ll all be herded by the government, terrified of the infection spreading, into an abandoned hospital, accompanied by the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), the sole person to remain sighted, who pretends to be affected to remain with him.
The atmosphere in the quarantined building quickly takes a “Lord of the Flies” turn, with a bartender who’s brought a gun into the place (Gael Garcia Bernal) taking charge and demanding first valuables, and then sex, as the price for a share of the food deliveries that he’s commandeered. Meanwhile the rationalist doctor grows increasingly upset over being babied by his wife, who’s the person who must ultimately take extreme action to save their “ward”—which also houses a pretty dark-haired woman (Alice Braga), a black street man (Danny Glover) and a young boy (Mitchell Nye)—from mistreatment.
Eventually the small group of survivors find themselves back in the city, where they discover the remaining population, all blinded, fighting over the little available food. Eventually they make their way back to the doctor’s house, where the plot takes a final, hopeful turn.
In telling this apocalyptic story, Meirelles abandons the familiar whiplash style that’s become his signature (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”). But “Blindness” is just as ostentatiously arty: this time around, though, he opts for a moody, lugubrious feel, punctuated by moments at which he and cinematographer Cesar Charlone turn the screen into a swirling, churning white blob to mimic the victims’ experience. But darkness is big, too: there’s one point when Moore’s character goes into an unlit basement and the screen goes blank, only the sound remaining. (Given much of what we’ve been seeing, it’s no great loss.) And throughout there’s all sorts of play with shadow and light.
Unfortunately, one gets the feeling that the opportunity for visual tinkering is what drew Meirelles to the material, because the picture doesn’t exhibit any real feel for the narrative. The characters—even the doctor and his wife at the center of things—are symbols rather than people, and try as they might Ruffalo and Moore founder over the emptiness of the roles. The supporting players fare even worse, with talented performers like Glover, Bernal and Chaykin unable to offer anything beyond the skimpiest sketches.
One can imagine that in a more discreet version, Saramago’s story might have made a good episode of “The Twilight Zone” years ago. In Meirelles’ hands, however, it’s a misfire from first to last, a harsh commentary on the human condition that even a hopeful ending can’t rescue from being a what-if story that’s become a pointless so-what movie.