The most recent example of bleak chic, Fernando Meirelles' mostly harrowing adaptation of José Saramago's international bestseller Blindness, mixes the high-velocity pace and stylishness of the Brazilian director's breakout City of God with the Portuguese author's thinly metaphysical horror 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 Paulo, 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 save, inexplicably, 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 or attention 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 so much as the conflicts that arise between them.
Like Saramago, Meirelles doesn't care about the medical or psychological specifics of blindness, nor is he interested in the fate of any one human but rather of humanity as a whole. (There's obviously a grand metaphor here — people are "blind" — but it's pretty simplistic.) Moore's sole seer may be the most fleshed-out, but like the city in which they live, none of the characters have names (or backstories).
The allegory works occasionally, as in the film's artful attention to naked bodies of all shapes, sizes, and ages. On the other hand, when the six or so characters we've met before — representing a convenient array of various races and backgrounds — all coincidentally show up in the same hospital room at the same large detention center, the theatrical setup awkwardly recalls any number of Twilight Zone episodes.
But as the quarantine facility overcrowds with more bodies, waste, and detritus, Blindness finds its compelling way. Muck and madness takes over. Yes, hell is other people, especially when trapped in a rundown mental hospital that looks like Titicut Follies' Bridgewater. 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 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 sagely old man with a none-too-subtle eye patch — undoubtedly a wise move. Blindness is strongest when it's not trying to say anything but instead 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, Meirelles' Blindness pulls the viewer into its nightmarish vision and dares us to watch how mankind — on the level of both governments and individuals — fails to cope in times of chaos. And considering the current headlines, maybe that's insightful enough.