The original Portuguese title of Blindness, the 1995 novel that prompted José Saramago’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira, or Essay About Blindness. I think it’s worth mentioning here because those unfamiliar with Saramago’s work might glean from this specification some sense of this extraordinary novel’s tone, which, characteristically, is digressive, allegorical, and basically unconcerned with character development or the well-measured escalation of drama—the sorts of elements that conventionally make for engaging movies. It’s equally worth mentioning that Blindness the movie, as adapted by Don McKellar and directed by Fernando Meirelles, is clearly uninterested in being a conventional sort of movie. Yet in its attempts to carve out its own identity while making select concessions to the basic form and structure of a dramatic feature, the film seems to lose out in both gambits. Blindness is a deeply intriguing movie that can’t fulfill its promises, a strangely flat apocalyptic drama that rarely shows signs of knowing what it’s about.
It begins, boldly, and not unlike a horror movie, with the first victim of the mysterious disease of “white blindness” becoming afflicted while waiting behind the wheel of his car at a traffic light in the middle of an unnamed large city, the attack thus accompanied by a thunderous chorus of car horns and hollering, intensifying the sense of some terrible pestilence raining down on the masses from an angry god. The disease goes airborne, and we follow a chain of others who catch it: the thief who steals the first blind man’s car (played a little too obviously mercenary by McKellar), the doctor who treats the first blind man (Mark Ruffalo), the patients who shared the doctor’s waiting room with the first blind man (Alicia Braga’s tough, dignified prostitute, Danny Glover’s one-eyed wise man), and so on. Following the measures decided upon by a panicked government (helmed by Sandra Oh), the blind are quarantined, and much of what follows plays out in the characters’ increasingly decrepit confinement.
Saramago’s formally rigorous prose style, with its extensive, multi-page paragraphs with scant punctuation, serves Blindness more perfectly than any of his other novels because, with so few signifiers to help break up dialogue, you actually feel sort of blind while reading it, trying to keep track of who’s talking, depending largely on the nuances of their individual printed voices. Since McKellar’s script resigns itself to simply dramatizing the novel’s action and does little to evoke its refrain of philosophizing and consideration of motives, Meirelles, perhaps as a countermeasure, seems to be trying to build up a like sense of blindness in the viewer through the repeated use of rack focus, white-outs, and the blurring of the frame’s edges. Yet the white-outs look uninterestingly synthetic—imagine if that “milky whiteness” were evoked by using actual milk!—and the strategy feels like an affectation, partly because it makes no sense as a way of creating a subjective point of view: the characters are either blind or not blind, never anything in between. At the same time, the entire visual world of Blindness is so cold and steely, filtered so as to suck all warmth out, that there’s no sense of the richness of the visual world that’s been stolen from the victims, no nostalgia either suggested or displayed that might pierce the emotions.
Over the course of Blindness the quarantined exhibit both the most base and vile of human tendencies—Saramago’s Marxist leanings can be detected here in the pathetic trading of food for utterly material goods—and the most ennobling and moral. The hero of the story is the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), the sole character to retain her sight, a fact she wisely holds secret. In a journey not unlike those of other characters that Moore has played over the years, she seems initially to be fairly vacuous and only through crisis reveals herself as resourceful, maternal, valiant and wily—though this transformation feels a matter of course, rarely becoming something we’re able to identify with. So on one hand, Meirelles is trying, unsuccessfully, to put us in his characters’ shoes, while on the other hand the characters, each of them as anonymous as the world they inhabit, fail to assume the specificities and interior lives that might draw us to them. Where literature, which only need supply the data it desires and nothing more, can function quite well in a world without specifics, it is a tremendous challenge to create a movie, particularly one shot on location, that exists in an everyworld full of everymen.
I can’t help but wonder if the movie might have worked better if Meirelles simply opted to maintain a detached, clinical approach, a la Michael Haneke in the similarly inexplicable apocalypse wrought in his underseen Time of the Wolf, allowing us to gradually develop our own empathies through a distinctive, vivid, stark visual world in which trauma and negotiation play out fully. Indeed, how oddly appropriate it might have been if the perspective through which we watched Blindness unfold was strictly observational.