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Jim McGuire | Monday, October 13, 2008

What would happen if the world were struck with an inexplicable pandemic of blindness, and the “infected” were quarantined and left to their own increasingly feral devices? That is the question “Blindness,” the new film by Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”), explores with some degree of success. The film aims to be an artful commentary on the fragility of society and how our baser instincts can corrupt with little provocation. What we see instead is a grim post-apocalyptic tale that drifts into a fog -much like the milky white haze that the afflicted see in the film – without providing much substance.

The film begins with scenes of hectic, urban traffic and a man in a white sports car at a red light who inexplicably goes blind. The man and the on-lookers who help him (and steal his car) try to rationalize the situation, but even the man’s eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) is befuddled by the situation. There is nothing physically wrong with the man’s eyes, and yet he is completely blind. Over the next day, a number of people who came into contact with the man in some way including the man who stole his car, a prostitute, a bartender, and even the doctor find themselves suffering from the same inexplicable “white sickness.”

The government, about whose totalitarian measures the film thankfully doesn’t sermonize, orders a quarantine of the recently blinded, and the doctor and his wife (Julianne Moore), who can still see but wants to stay with her husband, are taken to a converted mental hospital with the rest of the supposedly infected.

There, the newly blind are cut off from the outside world and forced to elect ward representatives and run their own affairs. The overcrowded conditions, lack of aid, and general malaise of the people leads to the hospital becoming squalid, dirty, and -ironically – rife with disease. The doctor, aided by his wife who must keep her sight a secret, takes on the leadership role for their ward, but tensions quickly escalate as the conditions worsen and help from the outside dissipates.

One day, things finally snap, and the self-proclaimed King of Ward Three (Gael Garcia Bernal) gets a hold of a gun and hoards all the food rations from the rest of the hospital, demanding payment in the form of jewelry and other valuables. Later, he demands payment through the rape of women from the other wards.

After one of the women in her ward dies, the doctor’s wife finally decides to take matters into her own hands, killing the King and starting a war that leads to the burning down of the building. Those who escape the blaze find the gates unlocked and escape to the devastated cities on the outside where blindness has taken over all of society.

The last twenty minutes might remind viewers of any number of bleak, post-apocalyptic urban tales (e.g. “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” heck, even “Wall-E”): once vibrant city streets filled with garbage and dejected survivors wandering aimlessly to tonal, art-house music.

There is a bit of hope at the end of “Blindness,” but after all the nihilistic behavior in the preceding hour and a half, viewers can’t help asking, “what is the point?”

“Blindness,” along with the original novel by Jose Saramago, has the distinct honor of being condemned by the National Federation for the Blind for the depraved and unrealistic portrait it gives of blind people, and it is easy to see why.

The one character in the film that was born legally blind is as depraved as anyone else, helping the King of Ward Three round up the other patients’ valuables and women for consumption. Julianne Moore as the doctor’s wife, the one who can “see,” is portrayed as the voice of reason. While everyone else squabbles and wallows in their own filth, she is the one still cleaning, still moving, still fighting, i.e. the only one who is still a productive member of society. Moore’s character, for her constant presence in the movie, rarely says anything of any substance, only deep sounding things. The movie is filled with great acting talent (Moore, Ruffalo, Danny Glover), but nobody gets to shine or grab your attention because the camera’s focus is always lost in a cluster of people when it isn’t floating randomly to the side.

The essence of the film for both the characters and the audience is being lost in a fog, and neither group gets much gratification at the end.