Director Fernando Meirelles has examined desperate pressure cookers (City of God) and institutional corruption (The Constant Gardener) before. Blindness proves perfect to meld both themes, with a science fiction twist imagining the downfall of civilization itself.
Blindness is part of a special subset of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization nightmare. Whereas the typical entry works by introducing a disrupting element into the status quo (typically a monster), a few instead subtract one fundamental fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is simple: flip one switch, and watch civilization fall in short order. In Children of Men, humanity becomes infertile. In The Happening, the biosphere starts pumping out poison. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet suddenly die off. In innumerable zombie flicks death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coincidence that at least two members of the Blindness cast already have relevant experience on their resumes: Julianne Moore in Children of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.
All of these stories bleed over into the genre realms of science fiction and horror. Blindness, however, is based on the magical realist (if it’s accurate for me to call it that) novel by Jose Saramago. The novel is set in a generic city, featuring unnamed characters (the movie, filmed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, effectively preserves both conceits – I didn’t notice until the credits rolled that the characters did not have names). Without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zaramago posits a highly contagious “White Blindness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affecting everyone but one random woman. The movie’s explanation is a far more literal highly communicable disease, diagnosed for the audience by the unnamed opthamologist “Doctor” (Mark Ruffalo). By sheer coincidence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune.
The obvious challenge for the filmmakers is how to render a prose story about blindness into the most visual storytelling medium of all. Cinematographer César Charlone (who also shot City of God and The Constant Gardener) meets the challenge by creating stunning visuals which paradoxically obscure. The picture frequently flares into a burned-out whiteness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the characters find themselves living as the safety net of society collapses.
The story brutally details a basically pessimistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inherent greed and avarice make a catastrophic situation worse. The very first victim of the disease is immediately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as automobiles are shortly to become the most futile of valuables to steal). As the blindness disease spreads, the authorities (represented by The Minister of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by Sandra Oh) attempt to contain the infected in isolation wards, a weak euphemism for concentration camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely written but implausibly eloquent monologue, “the disease was immune to bureaucracy.”
The infected are made up of characters from many cultural and economic backgrounds, much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two opposing societies coalesce around two very different natural leaders. The Doctor and his Wife create a fragile but functioning democracy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael Garcia Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploiting their few resources for short-term base pleasures. Inevitably, the two fledgling states go to war, as much out of ideology as for want of resources.
As the ward denizens’ circumstances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a punishing experience to watch (an imitative fallacy). In terms of depictions of violence, it is no less explicit than, say, Children of Men, but wholly lacks that superior film’s dark wit and essential thread of hope. Whereas Children of Men had no real villain (Luke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was actually more of a Che Guevarra-type revolutionary), there is little or no subtlety of character in Blindness‘ wholly evil bad guys. Would the central allegory be more interesting to ponder if the villains were not so unambiguously monstrous? Even I Am Legend dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like monsters possessed crude intelligence, a will to live, and empathy for their own kind.
The fragile community in the wards disintegrates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amazingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the prisoners discover the doors have actually been left open. If anything, the world outside has become worse off than the pressure cooker in which they were imprisoned. After a harrowing trip through the devastated city, they experience one fleeting moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. Afterwards, they set up an eden in the Doctor and his Wife’s former home, like a less-satiric version of the fortified suburban shopping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended family embraces her as their “leader with vision.”