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Blindness (2008)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Senselessly Cruel"
1 stars

On the surface, “Blindness” appears to have all the qualities one looks for in a late-season piece of prime Oscar bait--a talented cast and an extremely gifted director banding together to bring a provocative (though not too provocative) and universally acclaimed novel (from Jose Saramago) to the big screen in a package featuring big ideas about the human condition for those into such things and healthy dollops of sex and violence for the rest of us. And yet, somewhere along the line, something went terribly wrong and what should have been a stirring and horrifying look at the human condition in the face of unthinkable events instead becomes the biggest and most inexplicable squandering of cinematic resources to hit theaters since “Miracle at St. Anna.” Yes, I know that film only came out last week but I suspect that even if it had debuted more than a year ago, that statement would still hold.

Set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country--since everything is neat and orderly and since the populace consists of a melting pot of actors from all over the world who are liberal-minded enough to have elected Sandra Oh as their prime minister, I guess we can assume that we are somewhere in Canada--the film tells the story of what happens when the people are suddenly stricken with a mysterious and seemingly contagious form of blindness that causes its victims to see whiteness instead of darkness. The first victim of the so-called “white sickness” is a man (Yusuke Iseya) who succumbs while driving and who quickly infects his wife (Yoshno Kimura), a crook (Don McKellar, who also wrote the screenplay) who takes advantage of his condition to steal his car (although he does make sure to give his victim a ride home--more proof that the film takes place in Canada), his eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and the various people sitting in his waiting room. Before long, the epidemic moves so quickly that the government, having apparently learned nothing from the lessons of the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s or Hurricane Katrina, decides that the best thing to do is to take the infected and quarantine them from the rest of the populace in what appear to be an abandoned insane asylum surrounded by armed guards until something can be done--of course, the fact that the few explanations that the detainees receive upon their arrival is conveyed via videotape leaves little hope that anyone in charge is really on the ball.

Proving once again the dangers of allowing people to choose their own seats, all the decent characters--including the noble doctor, a beautiful and noble prostitute (Alice Braga), a noble little boy (Mitchell Nye) and a noble old African-American (Danny Glover) who serves as a convenient font of wisdom--congregate in Ward A while all the hateful and violent people--including a gun-toting bartender (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a jeweler (Maury Chaykin) who has the advantage of having been blind since birth--wind up in Ward C. Inevitably, Ward C quickly assumes control of the most important asset--food distribution--and uses it to instill a reign of terror against their fellow inmates by forcing them to cough up their valuable or their women if they want to eat. What they don’t realize is that there is one person in their midst who can still see, the noble wife (Julianne Moore) of the noble doctor who bluffed her way in to be with her husband, and as conditions deteriorate, she finds herself bearing witness to the myriad atrocities while quietly trying to find ways to help and protect those in Ward A. Before too long, however, she can no longer stand idly by and kicks off a violent revolt that eventually inspires a breakout from the facility and finds her leading a handful of people out into the world again to see (or not) what has happened during their time away. (Oh, and just in case you think I am being some kind of schmuck, none of the characters are given any proper names to speak of.)

According to comments I have seen from those who have read it, “Blindness” is supposed to work beautifully on the printed page but after just a few minutes, it becomes painfully clear that this is the kind of story that simply doesn’t translate very well from the page to the screen. For starters, the story is clearly an allegory designed to illustrate how a great catastrophe can inspire a sort of moral blindness that allows some people to cruelly mistreat others when they think that no one is watching. That’s great, except for the fact that allegories don’t really work so well in the more literal medium of film--they tend to come across as extremely heavy-handed after a while--and after a while, it just bogs down into one scene after another in which some people act deplorably while others suffer horribly without any real sense of deterioration. What is really frustrating about this is there are plenty of intriguing questions inspired by the film’s premise--especially surrounding the details of the disease and what is going on in the world outside the asylum as the infection progresses--that Don McKellar’s screenplay adaptation never bothers to address. (Ironically, McKellar wrote and directed a fascinating 1998 film entitled “Last Night” that did offer a far more nuanced look at a group of people facing what may be the end of the world.)

There is also the problem that blindness is simply not very compelling from a visual standpoint--if viewed from a subjective point-of-view, we get nothing to look at and if observed from a more objective viewpoint, all we get are a lot of people stumbling around and failing their limbs in order to make sure that all of us in the audience know that they are indeed blind. Director Fernando Meirelles, making his first trip behind the cameras since his widely acclaimed 2004 film “The Constant Gardener,” is an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker but you certainly wouldn’t know that from watching his efforts here. The opening scenes before the sickness begins to spread are so oddly executed that they feel like rehearsal tapes that have somehow found their way into the final cup--the scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are especially strange and disconnected. Once the blindness begins to take over, he never figures out a way to make it work as a cinematic conceit from either a subjective or objective aspect. Many of the visuals are infused with bright whiteness to suggest what the world looks like from the perspective of its victims but while having someone say that the sensation is like looking through milk might be evocative on the page, trying to actually create that effect for all to see just seems kind of silly. As for the more objective moments, he just gives us endless glimpses of people wildly lurching half-naked through scenes of depraved squalor that suggest what might have been the result if Lars Von Trier had been hired to stage a production of “Marat/Sade” that was cast entirely with Joe Cocker impersonators.

As some of you may know, “Blindness” had its world premiere last spring as the Opening Night film at the Cannes Film Festival and received negative reviews from practically everyone who saw it. (Not that this is unusual--the festival has a strange history of kicking things off with a dud.) In the wake of its dismal reception, Meirelles went back and recut the film into the version that is now being released--among the biggest changes has been the elimination of a narration by Danny Glover that know makes his presence in the rest of the film almost completely superfluous. However, this is not the kind of film that can be improved with a few cosmetic fixes--this is the kind of catastrophe that fails so fully and completely on virtually every level that the only possible way to improve its standing would be to put it on a shelf so that no one could see just how bad it is for themselves.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17271&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/03/08 00:23:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/09/13 Martin Logistical mess. Plot inexplicably random. Some above average acting moments. Skip. 2 stars
8/07/13 mr.mike Tough to sit through but not bad. 4 stars
8/27/11 hurdygurdy man Luckily saw this on the tube, some ch surfing got me to the end...moneys on the anchovies! 2 stars
8/16/10 Simon Rather messy/impossible novel-film adapt, but directorially & allegorically lots to chew on 3 stars
12/31/09 Peter Worst movie ever 1 stars
10/18/09 auzzie chickie disturbing, sadistic and stomach turning. Not exactly one for the kids! 1 stars
11/16/08 City of God was excellent... ...but every Meirelles movie after that was horrible. 1 stars
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  03-Oct-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Feb-2009


  DVD: 10-Feb-2009

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