BY CHRIS SZABLA
José Saramago and Fernando Meirelles are masters of disaster. The former, a Portuguese Nobel literature laureate, is known for his novels’ exploration of humanity in the face of bizarre, counterfactual catastrophes. The latter, an acclaimed Brazilian director, is best known for the brutal, visceral violence of his seminal City of God, a drama of gang life in Rio’s notorious favelas, and the clipped realism of his adaptation of John Le Carré’s Africa-exploitation thriller The Constant Gardener.
Bring the two together, however, and the result is an awkwardly ill-fitting patchwork of perspectives on the human reaction to chaos and disorder. Blindness, originally a novel by Saramago, is premised on the reversal of Gandhi’s maxim “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” A pandemic of violence infects an anonymous, multicultural metropolis (which just happens to look a lot like São Paulo, although almost everyone speaks perfect American English). The predictable results: cars crash, planes fall from the sky. A panicked government quarantines the infected in an old hospital and leaves them to their devices.
Through it all, we follow Julianne Moore, who, immune to the disease, follows her infected husband into the quarantine. As conditions at the facility become ever more dystopian, she struggles to maintain cleanliness, sanity, and order. Her efforts, however, are for naught: human waste begins to fester in the hospital’s halls, and, in the absence of both sight and shame, nudity and fornication become common. The situation reaches its nadir when Gael Garcia Bernal, apparently tired of playing sensitive nice guys, proclaims himself “King of Ward 3,” seizes the facility’s food supply, and, wielding its only weapon, makes an increasingly outrageous litany of demands, culminating in the extortion of other wards’ women.
The resulting depravity is enough to drive an increasingly resilient Moore over the edge. “I’ll never forget your voice,” Bernal responds to one of her challenges. “And I’ll never forget your face,” she intones, in reply. Her act of revenge sparks a battle which drives the infected from their hospital-prison and into the wider world, where blindness has taken total control. Civilization’s last defenses had been stripped bare – as have many of its members. The specter of gnawed corpses and foraging nudes dominates a Brueghelian landscape of the desperate and deprived.
Moore’s burden in this drama of death and destruction shifts to a new role as den-mother and provider. As her band of charges makes its way through the fallen city, they take on the characteristics of a family. One reveals that the warmth and closeness he has experienced since the onset of the plague has made it one of the best periods in his life.
Paradoxical moments like these – or a point, earlier in the film, when we learn one of Bernal’s cronies “enjoys” the “advantage” of having been blind prior to the plague – bring out the Saramago in Blindness. So does a moment when a dog senses Moore’s tears and dutifully greets her with a warm lick. Moments earlier, she had borne witness to a pack of animals tearing apart a human body – a visual which seemed like an undoubtedly Meirellesian creation.
As a film, Blindness may have been condemned to overemphasize the horror of sight in a world gone blind. Several organizations representing the blind have condemned Blindness‘ “animalization” of the blind, and, even if the film is more about the onset of sudden blindness less than the condition itself, these groups have a fair point. Perhaps it is because he is a writer, and not a filmmaker, that Saramago is capable of transcending our superficial repulsion toward each horror presented in the world of sight. The ultimate paradox of Meirelles’ Blindness, on the other hand, is how often it makes us want to shield our eyes.