Thursday, April 02, 2009

Blindness is a film that was reviled by the majority of critics. Everyone seemed to agree that it was worthless. And because of this, I ended up avoiding the movie when it was released in cinemas. My reasoning was that surely this many people couldn’t be wrong.

Well, they were. Fernando Meirelles’ film is tough and uncompromising, but it isn’t the cinematic atrocity that people have tarred it as.

The story revolves around a mass outbreak of sightlessness. Person after person becomes afflicted until eventually the government has to declare a state of emergency and herd the blind people into a few hospital wards in order to try and contain the unknown disease.

One of the first people to be quarantined is a doctor (Mark Ruffalo). Joining him is his wife (Julianne Moore), who actually feigns blindness in order to be with her husband. And even though the disease/infection/outbreak spreads throughout the whole of society, she seems immune.

We never know why she doesn’t succumb; we’re never given an explanation. But being the one person that can still see, she gets to witness the breakdown of society.

Some people have claimed that the depiction of blind people in this film is offensive. This is ridiculous. The film has nothing to do with the sightlessness that afflicts people in the real world. This film is about the chaos that ensues when people can no longer share another person’s point of view. In this film that is taken literally, but in Blindness you can see echoes of real life. One example that springs to mind is the craziness that happened in Germany during World War Two. Not everyone who committed atrocities was a monster. Many of them were perfectly ordinary people, but because they were caught up in this wave and because they could no longer see someone else’s point of view (or were allowed to), they performed heinous acts. So therefore Moore’s character might represent the person/country/society that is faced with an overwhelming social crisis – how they respond will define them.

As you’d expect, when two hospital wards begin squabbling over food, Moore tries to negotiate. But when this proves to be pointless, Moore buries her head in the sand. Again I’m inclined to drawl parallels with World War Two. The British tried negotiating with the Nazis and then later they curled up into a little ball. Well, until the Nazis invaded Poland...

Moore snaps during the film’s most brutal scene. You see, you have one ward that is run by the doctor and his wife and another that is run by a genuine blind person (someone who was blind prior to the outbreak) and a ‘King’. The ward run by the King takes the food that the government occasionally sends their way and then makes the rival ward pay for the grub. At first the people in the doctor’s ward pay with valuable possessions (again, like in a concentration camp, people are stripped of their belongings – they’re stripped of their individuality), but then the king ups the stakes by making them pay with their women.

Initially, Moore goes along with the plan. After all, they need food, so they should just go along with it, right? But when one of the women is killed, something inside her snaps.

This brutal act draws a line in the sand. Moore can take blackmail and she can suffer personal humiliation, but the casual violence that is inflicted upon a defenceless woman is too much. She intervenes with ruthless efficiency.

Moore waits until the next mass rape and then kills the King, saying that things are different now. From now on, she’s collecting food from Ward 3. If they don’t pay, she’ll keep on killing their men. It’s a vicious response, but it’s pretty much the only course of action available to her if she wants to survive.

As the only sighted person, Moore has a heavy weight on her shoulders. She’s almost a godlike figure, able to pass judgement on those around her and smite them with relative ease if she so chooses. But with her husband, we see what happens when you’re in a position of power and everything is taken away from you. He resents having to be treated like a baby and hates losing his independence. He even cheats on his wife because he feels so inferior to her. The natural instinct, when the world is turned on its head, is to fight and thrash and lash out. It takes a lot of strength to keep things together.

And despite the film’s supposed ugliness, I found it to be quite an uplifting movie. A small group leaves the hospital (the guards who control the outside of the building abandons it, presumably after having gone blind themselves) and makes its way back to the doctor’s house. There they live together and look after one another. This is the sort of response that one would hope would develop in a mass crisis. You’d hope that people would pull together and look out for one another. And the fact that these people do this ends the film with a note of optimism. There’s no need for us to live in a manmade hell.

However, the ending does raise a question. At the end, a man mysteriously regains his sight. Does this mean that everyone else will, too? The way that we see Moore gazing upon the city from her balcony would indicate this. But does that mean that everything will return to normal? That people will go back to their normal ways; that this happy group will separate? Does it mean that after temporarily gaining some form of clarity, laziness and neglect will return to this society? Does it mean that we’ll return to our more regular form of blindness? Most probably, yes.

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  1. Nice review -- and fair and accurate. I sometimes think the critical response was a bit like the blindness in the film: an epidemic contagion. Critics built a bandwagon and invited their peers to climb aboard. As a result, a film worth seeing was a blip on the radar and has seen whatever its reputation might have been evaporate. It's astonishing to think how much power critics have when we follow their leads. A year of work from cast and crew went into Blindness -- all so the critics could convince us how terrible it is that we might not see for ourselves that it is, in fact, provocative as can be. Have you read the novel yet? (Or did I miss that in the review?) It's quite good. Better than All the Names, I think, though not as strong as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

  2. Nope, I haven't read the novel yet, although I'm anxious to. So far I've only read All the Names and The Cave - one of which I loved and the other which I struggled to get through.