There is an old saying that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Don’t tell that to Julianne Moore’s character. In this quasi science fiction morality tale, her character learns that it’s not what you can’t see that will hurt you, rather what you can see. This is a very dark film that takes an incredibly cynical look at humanity. She’s the only seeing person in an isolated group of mysteriously blind people. The film is obviously told from her perspective, as anyone else’s would be impossible to present, at least on film. The movie is based on a novel by Jose Saramago, and I’m very interested to know whether that version allows for the story to be told from other perspectives. I haven’t read, or previously heard of the book.
The film begins with the very first case of blindness. An Asian driver’s stopped at a traffic light when he finds himself suddenly unable to see. It’s not exactly accurate to describe the condition as blind, because instead of blackness the inflicted experience a wash of bright white, but nothing more. Right from the beginning we get a rather unflattering look at humanity, when the people around the blind man pretty much take advantage of him. Upon examination an eye doctor can find nothing physically wrong with his eyes. It reminded me of the doctor visit in Tommy, where the doctor sings: “His eyes react to light. The dials detect it…” By that evening others are coming down with the sudden and inexplicable condition, beginning with our eye doctor. It doesn’t take long for people to figure out that this is some kind of disease or communicable infection. The afflicted are soon herded into compounds where they are quarantined. The isolation is enforced with automatic weapons. No one who can see is allowed inside. No one who is blind is allowed to leave. That takes away any hope that the government is interested in treating or curing the victims. They are left to fend for themselves in these compound wards. All are blind, except for Moore’s character, who at first feigned the blindness to avoid being separated from her infected husband. Once inside, she continues to hide her ability to see from the other patients. Societal norms break down, and one man announces himself the King Of Ward Three, and begins to terrorize the others with his own court of flunkies. They take control of the food left by the government and charge the others to eat. When the cash and trinkets run out, he demands women be offered up in order for the rest to eat. In one of the more brutally explicit rape scenes in film history, the breakdown of social norms and culture are demonstrated. Conditions continue to deteriorate until all out war results.
In a film like this the characters and actors are everything, and there are a few standouts. Danny Glover plays an old man who happens to have a radio. There is an effective scene where everyone is gathered around as he recounts the events up until his own internment. He has very little screen time, but represents whatever is gentle and kind remaining in humanity. Julianne Moore has the most important and demanding role. She must react to all of the filth and brutality around her while attempting to protect her husband, who is growing more and more despondent. All the while she attempts to keep her terrible secret. Finally, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays the vicious role of The King Of Ward Three. We don’t really get to know these characters by names, more as descriptions like The Woman In Dark Glasses, or The First Blind Man, referring to the driver. Unfortunately, while the three leads are relatively strong, the supporting cast is pretty weak. Even though they attended blindness school and were required to spend significant time wearing blinders as they prepared for the film, they do a pretty poor job of maintaining the act. You would think that either the director, editor, or someone in continuity would have done something about the many instances a blind character reacts to movement or literally follows a person or object with their eyes. I fear the likelihood is there were just too many such instances to consistently do anything about. That’s the danger with an entire cast that is supposed to be blind. It’s a low budget film, and that couldn’t have been more evident in the weak supporting cast.
The film has a powerful message, and it’s not a pretty one. The acts these people perform inside the ward and the total lack of humanity many of them display is disturbing. Do the people involved with this story truly believe that our humanity would deteriorate quickly and so completely in these circumstances? It’s unrealistic to believe there would not be some attempt at finding an answer by the government. Knowing that they would all be vulnerable would be strong motivation even if you were dealing with some kind of totalitarian authority as we seem to be here. If you’re looking for something uplifting, you won’t find it here. Finally the film enters a third act that seems dreadfully out of place. I won’t go into it for fear of spoiling your fun, but it becomes a very different movie with no time to truly flesh this new approach out.
We aren’t really told where this place is. It has a South American fee, mostly due to the actors. The idea was not to bog the film down with where or when. Those concepts are treated as irrelevant. Newscasts refer to authority simply as “the government”. It absolutely doesn’t feel like The United States. The movie was filmed in both Brazil and Canada, so that eclectic location feel you get was likely intended.
Blindness is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For an independent film with such a low budget, this is a very impressive visual presentation. It’s a little ironic that a film dealing with blindness relies very much on a certain look. The picture is sharp and exhibits fine detail, only making the squalor of the ward that much more depressing. There isn’t a lot of color here and an overabundance of white light, but of course, that’s very much in keeping with what the inflicted see. So, while we aren’t offered a lot of color, we are compensated with a very clean pristine picture.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is adaptable to the elements of the film. There are a lot of claustrophobic moments in this film, and the mix tightens during those moments. There are also moments of emptiness where echoes and distant whimpers are around us, making you feel surrounded by the madness. It’s a very subtle and disturbing sound field, perfect for the image and atmosphere.
A Vision Of Blindness: This feature is nearly an hour in length and covers all of the tiniest details… in detail. Much of the crew speaks Portuguese, so this is a very difficult piece to watch. There are English subtitles, but sometimes you have two subtitles going at once. I had trouble watching this thing, and you’ll need a tremendous amount of patience to get anything out of it. If you can stick with it, you’ll get a pretty good look at making the film from the point of acquiring the rights to the premiere screening. The American leads have almost no participation here. I’ll have to admit that I caught myself dozing more than once, so I know I missed something. See if you can fare better.
Deleted Scenes: There are 5 very short scenes, and you can use the convenient play all option. Except for a different introduction to Glover’s character and a different edit of the rape , there’s nothing of value here at all.
The film will most certainly have some impact on you, it’s hard to see these kinds of images and not react. Much like Malcolm McDowell’s rehabilitation treatment in A Clockwork Orange, I don’t feel like I’ve been educated or had my awareness elevated. I simply feel like I’ve been assaulted. That’s the trouble that will keep this film from ever expanding beyond the art house crowd. We don’t mind disturbing images; many of us seek out disturbing films, but we want it to weigh less on our conscience. This is a message of despair not only for these characters but for humanity as a whole. It’s a lot like seeing images of The Holocaust. It’s necessary, but we wouldn’t call it entertainment. This film will never be accepted as mass entertainment. We don’t need an art film to tell us how brutal humans can be; there’s enough of it in our own history. It’s not that I can’t see this moral; I choose not to. “There’s nothing wrong with my eyes.”