Blindness (Miramax, R)

blindness.jpgMetaphors on the page too often become literal on the screen. The result in this case is a mannered film that lacks the resonance of the original work, but is too fussy and improbable to work as a thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would happen if an epidemic of blindness struck the human race, a bizarre sort which strikes instantaneously and absolutely, and for which there is neither treatment nor cure?

That’s the question asked in Blindness, a philosophical thriller directed by Fernando Meirelles, with a screenplay by Don McKellar adapted from a novel by Jose Saramago. Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, long refused to allow this novel to be adapted into a film. Having seen the end result, I think he had it right the first time. Blindness is a big-budget, star-laden mess which wants badly to be enlightening but manages primarily to be unpleasant.

The first to be struck by the strange, milky blindness (the victim’s visual field goes completely white, rather than black) is a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya; note that none of the characters have names) waiting at a traffic light. A passerby (Don McKellar) offers to help and does take Iseya home, then steals his car. Not a promising statement of faith in humanity, but a good indication of things to come.

The blindness seems to be contagious, because among the other early victims are the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who treats Iseya, and his receptionist (Susan Coyne). Soon the blind are herded into jail-like internment facilities where they are largely left to fend for themselves. The doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore) seems to be immune to the disease, but she pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband to the internment facility.

The interned blind have different responses to the stressful conditions. Some bond into family units and care for each other as best they can, while others go all Lord of the Flies and victimize the weakest among them. Chief among the latter is the self-proclaimed “King of Ward Three” (Gael Garcia Bernal), who seizes the facility’s meager food supply and sells it to the other internees, demanding payment first in jewelry and then in sex.

I don’t know about you, but if I was the only seeing person in an isolated facility being terrorized by a madman, and I had access to a nice sharp pair of scissors, and my husband was a physician who could instruct me in how to best use them to inflict lethal damage, I don’t think I would wait until after the women in my ward had been gang-raped before I put my abilities to work.

And there you have a basic problem in translating philosophical novels onto film: Metaphors on the page too often become literal on the screen. The result in this case is a mannered film that lacks the resonance of the original work, but is too fussy and improbable to work as a thriller.

It’s not for lack of trying. Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone have created a visually interesting film with lots of odd framing, abrupt cuts, and shots which go in and out of focus or disappear into in a milky haze. But it doesn’t really add up to anything, and watching Blindness feels a lot like being jerked around for two hours by someone who is so caught up in his own cleverness that he feels no need to explain or justify anything. | Sarah Boslaugh

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