DVD Review: Blindness
Blindness is an apocalyptic drama based on the novel by Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who also helmed City of God (which is meant to be amazing but I’ve never seen it) and The Constant Gardner (which I have seen, and it’s excellent). It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but didn’t seem to make a ton of noise either at the box office or with critics. The concept is genuinely unsettling – the world is stricken by an epidemic of blindness that’s apparently contagious and incurable – and the film trods some very grim ground indeed. I pride myself on being a pretty hard guy to shock or disturb when it comes to movies, but Blindness had some things in it that have been rattling around in my head since I watched it a few days ago, and that doesn’t happen to me very often. But while I appreciate what Meirelles and Canadian screenwriter Don McKellar (who also has a small but important role in the film as a petty thief) are going for, it’s darkness makes it almost too much to handle; it’s as emotionally grueling as any movie about the Holocaust I’ve seen. Which doesn’t mean Blindness isn’t good – it’s actually very good – but it’s definitely not for everyone.
The film gets right to it from the opening frames. A Japanese man in an unnamed North American city is sitting behind the wheel of his car when suddenly a strange whiteness begins to bleed into his vision until, seconds later, he’s completely blind. From here his strange affliction moves from person to person – apparently via contact, though this is never explained, which makes it all the more frightening; many filmmakers don’t realize that one of the keys to crafting a truly scary film is to not explain as much as possible – until it’s eventually a worldwide phenomenon that effectively shuts down the world as we know it. Before the epidemic causes the collapse of civilization, however, we’re introduced to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who the Japanese man’s wife takes him to for an examination. (A stylistic choice borrowed from the book is that none of the characters in the film have names, just titles or descriptions.) The doctor’s stumped, and tells his wife (Julianne Moore) about the strange case that night over dinner. Then, the next morning, he wakes up blind. It turns out over the course of the previous 24 hours or so (though this isn’t clear; the movie also doesn’t spend much time dwelling on exactly how much time has elapsed, but it’s never confusing) the blindness has spread, to the point where when Moore calls 911 and tells them her husband’s symptoms, a team of guys in hazmat suits show up to take him away. When they refuse to let her accompany him to wherever they’re planning on taking him, she lies and says she’s blind as well.
With this decision, the film becomes about Moore’s character; through the whole movie, she’s the one person who remains immune to strange disease, and, again, it’s never explained why. Her selfless act of subjecting herself to all sorts of horrors in the decrepit hospital ward where the blind are quarantined just to look out for her husband is the emotional core of the film, and Moore makes her into the closest thing I’ve seen to a true saint I’ve seen in a movie in a while. (It also helps greatly that Moore is a supremely talented actress.) As the ward fills up with other afflicted folks, she sticks to the charade that she’s blind as well, and essentially becomes the den mother to the ever-growing group, while her husband evolves into their leader and spokesman. But as the wards fill with more and more of the quarantined, conditions go from bad to worse, and the hospital basically transforms into an internment camp. The soldiers watching over them fade more and more into the background – they don’t want to get too close to the people, lest they become infected by “the white sickness” themselves – and eventually they pretty much stop doing anything, not even delivering food. It’s never made clear if abandoning the people in the hospital and leaving them to fend for themselves like sick animals left in a kennel is an actual policy decision from on high or just a consequence of the epidemic spreading to affect everyone, but either way the deteriorating conditions – and the actions taken by some of the “inmates” – become truly disturbing in ways I wasn’t prepared for. As I said, there’s some pretty tough stuff in this movie.
The performances in Blindness are uniformly great. Ruffalo injects his character with a stoic dignity, and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch him surrender it bit by bit as the situation in the hospital worsens. Gael García Bernal plays totally against type as the self-appointed “King of Ward 3,” who terrorizes the other blind people with the gun he managed to get his hands on. Watching an actor with such delicate features and such an otherwise likeable demeanor play a loathsome scumbag was something to watch indeed.
As for Meirelles, this guy really knows how to make a film. His use of whiteness in the film to mimic the effects of the disease are truly chilling at times, specifically in a sequence near the beginning where Moore and Ruffalo are pleading with the assault rifle-toting guards for medical help for an injured patient. All you can see are dark shapes swimming in milky white, except that the shapes keep shouting that if they get any closer they’ll shoot them. Meirelles puts the viewer in the proverbial shoes of the characters, and it’s really disturbing. And there’s something just unsettling about the use of whiteness instead of the more traditional darkness to represent the blindness epidemic; it’s a small detail that makes everything seem even weirder and more alien, and in terms of film, all that literal blackness onscreen would have been too obvious a representation of the emotional and psychological darkness in the film. Another chilling scene is when Danny Glover, as a kindly, one-eyed man in the “good” ward, tells them all, campfire-style, about how a handful of major disasters caused by the sudden blindness (plane collisions, horrible car accidents, etc.) basically prompted everyone to just hole up at home, turning the world’s cities into empty ghost-towns. The whole sequence is only a few minutes long, but it’s packed with some genuinely scary images, and Meirelles does a great job of making the utter collapse of society seem frighteningly plausible.
My main issue with Blindness was that, if anything, it’s a bit too grim. While there is a kind of light of sorts at the end of the tunnel (I don’t want to spoil anything, obviously, but two hours of things Just Getting Worse would have made the film depressing to the point of being unwatchable), it felt almost like it was too little, too late. By that point I’d been on such a punishing journey that it felt almost tacked on. But the film never devolves into what feels like cheap heartstring-pulling; all the emotionally-challenging stuff feels completely earned, and that’s a testament to Saramago, McKellar and Meirelles.
The other problem I had seems sort of minor, but I couldn’t really shake it. The government literally just dumps the afflicted in a run-down hospital and leaves them to fend for themselves. It’s the one aspect of Blindness that’s a little bit too much like a traditional apocalyptic sci-fi movie; it reminded me of similar actions taken by the mustache-twirling government/bureaucrat villains in similar (but much sillier) movies like Doomsday (read my review of this wonderfully fun action flick here; it couldn’t be more different from Blindness, and still it is totally awesome). That sort of thing works in a comic book-y movie like that, or Escape From New York or whatever zombie movie you want to name, but here it’s a distracting detail that feels at odds with the otherwise serious, intense material. Though the filmmakers’ decision to leave the “voice of authority” to a handful of increasingly distorted images on a television in the hospital is an effective and efficient way of conveying the idea that the government is saying one thing publically and doing another privately, it still felt oversimplified and cartoony.
Overall though, Blindness is a movie that really got under my skin for all the right reasons. It’s a truly affecting film filled with amazing performances, and Meirelles continues to prove himself to be an incredibly talented filmmaker. If you feel like you can handle the heavy stuff this movie will throw at you, I highly recommend it.
The DVD copy of Blindness I received to review was a two-disc special edition that I believe might be exclusive to Canada (the film was a Canadian co-production with Brazil and Japan, or so sayeth IMDB) thanks to the film’s Canadian distributor, Alliance Films. At any rate, the two-disc version doesn’t have a ton of extras, but what’s included is of very high quality.
The main attraction on disc 2 is the feature-length making-of documentary, Visions of Blindness, which follows the film’s production from the pursuit of the film rights to Saramago’s novel through a screening for the author (by that point the filmmakers had made the point over and over again how important it was to them for Saramago to approve of their adaptation, and his reaction to the movie as the lights go up in the theatre – with Meirelles sitting right next to him – is actually quite moving). It’s one of the most comprehensive and watchable making-of docs I’ve seen on a DVD in a long time, going beyond the usual press-kit fluff. Certainly it helps that the movie is as unique as it is, as does the fact that it’s based on a book by a Nobel Prize-winning, 86-year-old author who has never allowed a film to be made from one of his books before. Add to that a cast of acting powerhouses discussing their process (the cast participated in weeks of “blindness training” in which they all wore blindfolds and practiced working together to do simple things like cross a parking lot), and you’ve got a damn fine documentary. Top-shelf stuff.
Also included are a handful of deleted scenes, each of which features a brief text introduction from Meirelles, and his insight provides an extra level of understanding as to why things were cut. And finally there’s a cool little optional feature on disc 1 called ‘The Seeing Eye’ that allows the viewer to look at behind-the-scenes footage for certain sequences via branching technology when a little eye icon appears on the screen during the movie. It’s the sort of thing that’s quite popular on Blu-Ray discs, and it’s nice to see it replicated on a standard DVD.
The two-disc edition of Blindness
is a great DVD for a great movie.
Labels: DVD review