It’s too easy a joke to say that Blindness lacks vision; more accurate to say that it lacks control, lucidity and humanity, the last being a particularly calamitous absence in a film about civilization in crisis. José Saramago’s acclaimed Camusian novel, the basis for Fernando Meirelles’s apocalyptic muddle, uses a nation’s inexplicable outbreak of blindness as a crude but powerful parable for the basic isolation of the human condition, with a surging prose style that suggests a saturation of stimuli chipping away at social order long before the first character loses his sight. Unfortunately, the visceral rush of Saramago’s writing seems to have interested Meirelles much more than the author’s themes of urban alienation, and the emptily razzle-dazzling, dispiritingly empty-headed result feels like a zombie movie in which the zombies decided not to show up.
Adapted by co-star Don McKellar, the story charts the societal breakdown that follows in the wake of a sudden epidemic of “white sickness,” which leaves the symbolically nameless inhabitants of a symbolically nameless city groping in the dark. The opening sequence evocatively lingers on a huge close-up of a stoplight to evoke a burnt retina, but such subtlety is quickly discarded as the film impatiently zips past logic and emotional truth in order to contrive a facile Dantean lower circle out of the quarantined asylum into which the characters are dumped. Among them is Mark Ruffalo’s infected doctor, Alice Braga’s shades-wearing Mary Magdalene, Danny Glover’s sage old-timer and Julianne Moore’s diligent super-wife, the only one with her sight left intact—all of them facing disease, despair, and, as a pint-sized brute (Gael García Bernal) improvises a dictatorship in a rival ward, the extremities of human venality. The danker the horror, the slicker it’s reproduced: By the time the picture reaches its shrouded-in-darkness mass rape showstopper, Saramago’s original catalogue of dismay has gone from harrowing allegory to a TV commercial director’s clip reel.
Somebody at one point describes the “white sickness” as “swimming in milk,” and Meirelles, who never met an atrocity he couldn’t gussie up into an MTV set piece, fucking runs with it. In addition to the promiscuous ruse of overexposed whites, there are so many glowing screens, cramped setups and off-center compositions that Blindness indeed starts to look like the movie Woody Allen’s harried, sight-impaired auteur came up with in Hollywood Ending. Once released into the outside world, the characters come upon a church where members of a sect have fastidiously blindfolded every religious figurine in the building; asking just how a bunch of blind cultists could have accomplished this is a fool’s game when sorting through the Meirelles aesthetic, where sense is always sacrificed for effect. Moore by now deserves a bronze statue for her fearless portraits of emotional damage, though even she can’t save a film that uses the loss of sight not as a microscope into a collapsing world, but as a misbegotten spectacle that, stylistically and thematically, keeps walking nose-first into wall after wall.