A driver suddenly stops at an intersection, unable to see.
A prostitute loses her sight – and is abandoned, naked, by her client.
One by one, a cosmopolitan city is filled with sightless doctors, thieves, secretaries, children – all stumbling about, groping aimlessly toward they know not what.
This is the beginning of “Blindness,” and it’s a pretty weighty metaphor.
A pretty elastic one, too. Is this suddenly contagious affliction meant as a sign of our modern paranoia? As a stand-in for ignorance, or faithlessness (as the movie’s finest, most saintly character suggests)? Or is the fact that the victims report feeling trapped in a snowstorm – seeing nothing but white – a suggestion of racism?
Take your pick.
Unfortunately, symbols are no substitute for character. The characters have no names – they’re The Doctor’s Wife, or The Man With the Black Eye Patch – but they have little distinction too, rarely becoming little more than those identifying symbols. The Child. The Thief. We know little more about them at the end than at the beginning.
The Doctor’s Wife, for example, is a kind of martyr – when the contagious blind are quarantined, she pretends to be sightless so she can go inside to tend to her husband. It’s a genuinely holy act. But where’s her human frailty? Although she’s a survivor, she forgives almost everyone almost anything. She has a halo, but little reality.
Julianne Moore, who stars, does what she can with this, as you’d expect. She’s always been a performer able to create her own rich backstories. Even if you weren’t sure of who her characters in “Safe” or “Far From Heaven” really were, you never doubted she did. (My guess is that she sees this woman as deeply spiritual, and tragically childless.) But she’s still playing a construct, not a character.
Director Fernando Meirelles seems more lost. His great “City of God” showed an uncanny understanding of alternative societies, and the lord-of-the-flies survivalism they can engender. His underrated “The Constant Gardener” was fascinated with the cold decisions of politics. So this story’s twists – as a terrified government abandons the infected in concentration camps, and they begin to rule and misrule themselves – clearly appealed.
Yet there’s nothing here to match the energy of “City of God,” with many scenes so darkly lit it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, and his central image – of characters stumbling their way through a milky whiteness – tediously overused. And unlike “The Constant Gardener,” there are no surprises here among the characters. The bad people behave badly, the good one behaves well, and the flawed folks in the middle make mistakes.
“Blindness” is another one – dully written, ponderously paced and full of one-note characters acting exactly as we’d expect. The original book – by Nobel prize-winner José Saramago – definitely contains possibilities. But Meirelles and screenwriter Don McKellar sadly can’t see them.
For times and locations, see page 9.