The personal and mass chaos that would result if the human race lost its sense of vision is conveyed with diminished impact and an excess of stylish tics in “Blindness,” an intermittently harrowing but diluted take on Jose Saramago’s shattering novel. Despite a characteristically strong performance by Julianne Moore as a lone figure who retains her eyesight, bearing sad but heroic witness to the horrors around her, Fernando Meirelles’ slickly crafted drama rarely achieves the visceral force, tragic scope and human resonance of Saramago’s prose. Despite marquee names, mixed reviews might yield fewer eyes than desired for this international co-production.
Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, long resisted the idea of having his 1995 masterwork adapted for the bigscreen. Meirelles has proven the Portuguese writer’s instincts to be sadly correct. A horror tale, a bleak allegory and a chronicle of human suffering as consoling as it is devastating, “Blindness” emerges onscreen both overdressed and undermotivated, scrupulously hitting the novel’s beats yet barely approximating, so to speak, its vision.
A deliberately unspecified but primarily English-speaking city is experiencing an outbreak of what becomes known as the “white sickness,” causing stricken individuals to lose their eyesight, seeing nothing but white rather than darkness. First to succumb is a driver (Yusuke Iseya) who suddenly goes blind behind the wheel; his condition also afflicts his wife (Yoshino Kimura), the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who examines him and several other patients at the latter’s office, just for starters.
The only one who proves inexplicably immune to the rapidly spreading contagion is the doctor’s wife (Moore), who conceals this fact so as to accompany her husband to the abandoned mental asylum where the blind are placed under government quarantine. As the wards become crowded with internees, guarded by soldiers ready to fire at anyone who tries to escape, “Blindness” paints a despairing picture of humanity under siege.
Yet where the novel derived its power from a gradual, painstakingly detailed account of deteriorating conditions inside the prison, Meirelles resorts to visual shorthand and montage. In a manner more expedient than plausible, food grows scarce, the corridors become strewn with human waste and a violent faction, led by one gun-toting refugee (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), begins demanding payment of the most humiliating kind from the female internees. Tastefully shot and staged, the rape scene disturbs but also exemplifies the film’s willingness to flinch from a work that, on the page, is utterly unflinching.
Burdened with the ability to see the world going blind and mad around her, the doctor’s wife, acting as a stand-in for the audience, takes violent, decisive action that triggers a breakout from the asylum. Moore gets ample opportunity to show both unrestrained tears and clenched resolve as the woman who bravely leads a small group to freedom, including her husband, the first blind man and his wife, a beautiful young woman (Meirelles vet Alice Braga) and an old man (Danny Glover). Latter also provides incessant voiceover narration that, accompanied by the intrusive, dirge-like wailing of the score, tries in vain to fill in for the philosophical asides, wry humor and gorgeous epiphanies of Saramago’s voice.
Foregoing the vibrant, furiously overheated visual style he brought to “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener” (the editing, by “City of God’s” Daniel Rezende, is noticeably less frenzied), Meirelles adopts a cooler but, in its own way, no less fussy aesthetic. He often floods the screen in luminous white to mimic the sensation of blindness, at other times bathing his characters in the stuff so they appear to be, in one’s words, “swimming in milk.” This deliberately artificial effect gives the film a stagy, self-conscious air, a feeling only heightened by the book-inspired conceit of not giving the characters names.
Tule Peake’s production design impresses with the transformation of the sterile mental ward to squalid ninth circle of hell, and Meirelles’ vision of the outside world, littered with rubbish as extras stagger blindly about, is no less convincing. Pic was lensed in Ontario, Brazil and Uruguay, and appropriately enough, the city in which it’s set looks both vaguely familiar and effectively otherworldly.