In his previous overrated hit films, “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener,” Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has looked at humanity as wriggling specimens pinned to a board. His movies attach people-puppets to big, bold statements, but the films flounder when those people are supposed to be, you know, multi-dimensional human beings.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Meirelles found himself drawn to José Saramago’s novel “Blindness,” which has characters like Doctor’s Wife and Woman with Dark Glasses dealing with a sudden worldwide epidemic of blindness wherein people can see only white instead of only black. (This milky opaqueness gives cinematographer Cesar Charlone license to create the film’s only satisfying moments.)
The epidemic begins when First Blind Man (Yusuke Iseya) is suddenly stricken with the disease, which he immediately passes on to those with whom he first comes into contact: Thief (Don McKellar, who also wrote the screenplay) who takes the blind man’s car, First Blind Man’s Wife (Yoshino Kimura) and Doctor (Mark Ruffalo). The latter’s spouse (Julianne Moore) somehow manages not to go blind, but she fakes it so that she can accompany her husband into a government-sanctioned quarantine facility.
Once inside, the group of sufferers grows larger and larger as more people are stricken, and once they’ve been separated from civilization long enough, everything eventually goes all “Lord of the Flies.” One patient (Gael García Bernal) declares himself King of Ward Three and hoards all the food that’s been delivered for the facility. He initially demands everyone’s valuables and then, once that supply has been exhausted, he forces the women in the other wards to become sexual slaves in exchange for sustenance.
The real power brokers wind up being The Doctor’s Wife, since only a few people know she can see, and The Accountant (Maury Chaykin), a crony of the King, who’s been blind his entire life and can expertly navigate his surroundings.
While the impact of the blindness epidemic is portrayed somewhat compellingly, in a sub-“Andromeda Strain” sort of way, Meirelles would rather tediously explore Big Ideas such as the corrupting influence of power, the absurdity of racism, the absence of God, etc. Ultimately, the characters wind up being about as deep as pieces on a chessboard as they play out this metaphorical mishmash, so it’s appropriate that they’re all named so generically.
I’m a huge fan of McKellar’s work as a screenwriter (“Highway 61,” “Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould”), actor (“Twitch City”), playwright (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and director (“Last Night”), but his “Blindness” script knocks you over the head with its symbolism and metaphors so hard that you’ll wish you were wearing a helmet. He also goes from Point A to Point C without explaining pertinent information: How does the King of Ward Three get a gun? At what point did The Man with the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) fall in love with The Woman with Dark Glasses (Alice Braga)? Maybe it’s explained in the book (which I haven’t read), but the movie doesn’t fill in those gaps for us.
Given the stick figures they’re playing, there’s not much to be said for the cast, although Moore manages a few striking moments as a woman who goes from carefree and almost ditzy to a no-nonsense survivalist. But even her intensity is squandered by “Blindness,” which keeps going for about half an hour after it’s run out of things to say, meandering towards a ludicrous climax that paints a smiley face upon the proceedings and lets the audience go home without dwelling on any of the film’s gloomier moments. (Ruffalo and Glover get very little to do here and seem to be riffing on their respective standard roles of inert man and wise old sage.)
“Blindness” bleeds seriousness and lofty intentions from its every frame, but it’s a didactic bore. But hey, it’s Oscar season, so it’s probably just one of many more of those to come.