Blindness Dir. Fernando Meirelles

[Miramax Films; 2008]

When you live in a metropolis, you become a selective seer. You see the occupied taxis when you need an empty one, but the rest of the time, they're just a streak of yellow on your retina. You see the gum speckling the sidewalk when it ruins your new kicks, but the rest of the time, it's just the ground beneath your feet. Blindness sets out to document the world that we ignore and imagines, Lord of the Flies-style, the most devastating consequences of our narrowed vision.

Based on Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago's 1995 novel of the same name, Blindness uses sight as both literal plot device and metaphorical launchpad. Characters are named for their position in the story, at once defining their role while gesturing to the larger implications of the situation: The First Blind Man, The Doctor, The Doctor's Wife. These are specific people on screen, but they could be any of us.

When the First Blind Man (Yusuke Iseya) is suddenly stricken while driving, he visits the Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who's perplexed by his patient's condition. Sudden onset of blindness is usually a darkening of the visual field, not the "swimming in milk" sensation the First Blind Man describes. The Doctor's Wife (Julianne Moore) questions how her husband knows what the First Blind is experiencing. "Exactly," the Doctor responds, "I don't know what he saw, but I guess I have to take his word." This sentiment hangs in the air when, the next morning, the Doctor has contracted the strange disease, and an epidemic is underway.

Ruffalo and Moore are well cast. They are actors who can convey empathy without mawkishness and whose fearless vulnerability gives value to seriously flawed characters. As the husband-wife relationship transforms, Ruffalo and Moore dig deep into the recesses of the human experience, showing what so many other actors would be ashamed to reveal.

The Doctor's Wife, somehow, remains immune to the condition. When the blind are taken to be quarantined, she joins them, claiming blindness to stay with her husband. They are taken to a decommissioned sanitarium and left without guidance except for a fascistic presence, a man's visage and voice piped in on televisions informing the new residents of the rules and provisions of their prison. From the initial five, the ward becomes full, and then subsequent wards fill, until the population is overflowing. The influx strains the supply of food, water, and sanitation, and conditions soon resemble the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. The government provides no assistance, shooting anyone who ventures to ask. The Doctor's Wife, her sight-seeing concealed, plays both caretaker and witness. As civil society's order disintegrates and a vicious power struggle emerges, led by the opportunistic King of Ward Three (Gael García Bernal), the Doctor's Wife realizes the moral burden of her gift and takes action.

Meirelles paints the experience with delicacy and intelligence. Faces come into full frame, only to then edge out, leaving behind a mouth or a nose. Moments of despair are shadowed, but without artifice. The milky-whiteness of the blindness reappears, punctuated by a single chime, throughout the film -- including a lovely moment when the First Blind Man has an epiphany. Cinematographer César Charlone manages to create a parallel story in images, one that complements the action while adding nuance and meaning. We are forced to pay attention to what we see because the images aren't clean and neat; we become indirect participants in the story.

Because Meirelles recalibrates our eyes, our ears become finely attuned, and Blindness has a beautifully varied score to match its visual complexity. Marco Antônio Guimarães, billed as Uakti, has created yet another level of narrative; dissonance melts into harmony, strings blend with winds, and the story is heightened.

When the Doctor's Wife and her small band of followers finally escape and return to the city, the disorder onscreen is startling. Filmed in three different countries, these final images are a mixture of São Paolo, Brazil and Montevideo, Uruguay (the prison section was filmed in Guelph, Canada). Without any landmarks to grab onto, our eyes search every inch of the screen, trying to make out where we are. But because we cannot, instead, we just watch, mesmerized by the chaos that reigns. Is there a path back to life before the blindness? But more importantly, do we want to go there?

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