Most movies are easy to give a label to, but “Blindness” is not most movies. The movie seems unsure what to do with itself, sometimes it behaves like a tense thriller, sometimes it's an end-of-the-world tale, and sometimes it is a dark comedy. If I were to try and give it a simple descriptor, it would be “art”. This is not to say that there are not simple terms that one can use to describe the film; “long”, “slow”, and “vague” all come to mind.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jose Saramgo, “Blindness” meanders its way through a world brought to its knees by a sickness known as “White Blindness”. Vague is the order of the day in this film; the city it takes place in is undefined, seeming to be somewhere in Europe, but not anywhere in particular. The characters do not have names, how much time actually passes is never disclosed, and what exactly causes “White Blindness” is never explained.
The film opens with a busy intersection, and after a few minutes of watching a traffic light change from green to red and back again, we start the plot. A man (Yusuke Iseya) suddenly stops his car in the middle of the street, rubbing his eyes and complaining that all he cans see is white, explaining that it's like “looking through milk”
A man (Don McKellar; the film's screenwriter) eagerly offers to drive the man home so his wife can take care of him, and then promptly steals his car (“He should go blind,” comments the First Blind Man). The First Blind Man's Wife (Yoshino Kimura) takes him to the Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who does not know what to make of the illness. From here the sickness spreads.
We see the virus quickly spread; the Thief goes blind, followed by the other people that the First Blind Man came in contact with, The Woman with the Dark Glasses (Alice Braga), the Boy (Mitchell Nye), and of course the Doctor himself.
The Minister of Health (Sandra Oh) acts fast, and orders those suffering from “White Blindness” quarantined in a disused asylum, where the movie spends the bulk of its time. Doctor is the first person put into quarantine, and his wife (Julianne Moore) goes with him, claiming to be suffering from “WB” herself so she can stay with her husband.
The asylum quickly fills with people seen early in the film, the cabbie who took First Blind Man to the doctor, First Blind Man's Wife, a Pharmacy Assistant (Mpho Koaho) who helped Dark Glasses, Man with the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover), and other characters seen early on quickly populate the building.
Things go bad quickly, the group of blind people with, as far as they know, no sighted people to help them are unable to keep the already dingy asylum in any sort of sanitary manner. The floors quickly become littered with garbage and human waste, and while Doctor's Wife does what she can, there are limits to what she can do alone.
Things get worse as the government sends insufficient supplies and an ever increasing number of the afflicted to the asylum. The worst of humanity starts to show itself as trigger happy soldiers open fire on incoming victims at one point, leaving the bodies to be the problem of the other blind victims, and some of the new blind patients are not nice people. One of the new people declares himself King of Ward Three (Gael Garcia Bernal), and this is where the film focuses much of its attention
At two hours in length, “Blindness” may test your butt’s stamina; it's not that the film is boring, but it feels like it's not going anywhere. It's not until about forty-five minutes in that we even get a slightly bigger picture of what is going on in the outside world. The movie just slowly takes what ends up feeling a lot like a natural pace for itself to do what it wants, and while I respect the filmmaker’s final product, I think the movie could have been trimmed by about thirty minutes without anything of real value being lost.
What the film lacks in forward motion, it makes up for in style. Many scenes, especially some of the graphic scenes are shown in either nearly all white, or blacked out to create the sensation of blindness for the audience, and this works well in a theater, but I think when it comes out on DVD some of this effect will be lost. The film handles extreme violence, sex, and even rape without ever seeming gratuitous or overly graphic.
Going back to the amount of vagueness in the story; this works well for a lot of the film by not giving you much to fixate on in the environment (although I did fixate on it, trying to figure out where it was, going so far as to remember a web address in the background of one scene that turns out to have been fake), but it does not work so well for the characters. Maybe it’s the fact that no one has a name that keeps the characters from feeling fleshed out to me, but they didn’t. I rooted for the characters throughout the film, but never felt that connection that I feel to a really well written character.
Dark humour is used to great effect in this film, and really saves some of the duller bits of the film. Whether it’s the Doctor’s Wife walking away in the middle of an argument leaving him talking to a wall, the fact that the Ministry of Health has a video running periodically in the asylum full of people who cannot see it, or the King of the Third Ward’s rendition of “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, the dark humour sometimes seems inappropriate to the story, but often creates a sharp relief to the heavier aspects of the film.
If I had seen this movie on IFC, or Sundance I probably would have really enjoyed it, but in the theater I have to admit that I spent most of the last half hour wondering if the film was ever going to end. The climax had already happened, but there was no indication that the film was going to end. The ending itself redeemed the movie a lot for me, and left me thinking much better of the film than I would have had I left ten minutes early. Like the rest of the film, the ending is kind of vague, and it comes completely out of nowhere, nothing led up to it, but it was a decent ending.
Unless you are really into long arty films, I would give this one a pass in theaters, and instead give it a rent when it hits DVD. I would not go to see it again, but if when it hits the movie channels my TiVo happens to pick it up, I will probably give it another look. A good cast and tons of style are just not enough to make this two hour odyssey something I can recommend to the average moviegoer.
As an aside, I’ve read stories about the National Federation of the Blind protesting the film because, as their president Marc Maurer puts it, the film “portrays blind people as monsters”. It could not be more obvious that Mr. Maurer has not seen the film (you know what I mean, shut up), because if he had experienced the movie, he would know that it portrays bad people as monsters, that they happen to be blind is incidental. My other opinions on the film aside, I did not leave the theater thinking about all those crafty evil blind people out there just waiting to victimize me. What some people will say for a little attention….