One of the great pleasures of watching a lot of movies is the ability to spot new talent and watch it emerge over the course of a career. Every critic, film buff, and industry watcher wants to feel the way Martin Scorsese did in 1967 when he came out of Who’s That Knocking at My Door and proclaimed Martin Scorsese one of the great new talents of his generation. For me, and many others, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God seemed like the start of a great director’s career. City of God was a bold and brilliant film that show the presence of a true cinematic genius behind the camera, a natural talent who had a Scorsese-esque ability to choose just the right trick to make every shot work to its fullest potential. It seemed like there was no place to go except down from that modern classic, but his follow-up The Constant Gardener did not disappoint. Mierelles showed no signs of a sophomore slump, with that film he had shown real maturity and toned down some of City of God’s virtuosity to fit that very different film. Expectations were high for Mierelles’ third film, Blindness, which could solidify Mierelles as the great talent of our time if it lived up to his first two films. Unfortunately, Blindness isn’t as great as his previous films; in many ways it feels like the sophomore slump he somehow avoided with The Constant Gardener.
The film opens with a man (Yusuke Iseya) stopping his car in the middle of the road and telling the good Samaritans who stop to help him that he suddenly went blind while driving down the road. He eventually finds his way to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who can find no explanation for his sudden blindness. The next day, that eye doctor tells his wife (Julianne Moore) that he too is suddenly blind. It’s quickly decided that this blindness is the result of a spreading contagion and the government decides to quarantine everybody afflicted. The blind are brought into a detention facility and told to fend for themselves with no assistance from anyone with sight. The Julianne Moore character never loses her sight but decides to stay by her husband’s side in the quarantine just the same. The facility is undersupplied and unsupported, the blind quickly grow restless particularly a man in Ward 3 (Gael García Bernal) who shows no interest in cooperating with the people trying to make the place better.
The key problem with Blindness is simply that it is really depressing and unpleasant to sit through, which wouldn’t be a problem if it had a really strong story or a really profound message, but it has neither. The trailers don’t tell you this, but most of the movie isn’t set in the wider society dealing with this crisis, more than half of it is spent in a dark, dank, disgusting prison. The people are stuffed in like sardines, and the government isn’t even trying to help improve conditions. Painfully, the situation looks disturbingly similar to what happened to the people stuck in the New Orleans Superdome during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The difference is those people were stuck for about a week, and the people in the film are there for months on end with no end in sight and even less outside assistance. This allegory gives the sequence some degree of power, but at the same time there’s only so much of this abuse an audience can take. These scenes seem to go on forever, eventually the film moves on from this hellhole into some of its more impressive sequences in the last twenty minutes, but by then it’s too little too late. I only wish more of the film had taken place in the city than in that horrible prison.
The film’s central message is that society falls apart when it has to face a major crisis situation, but this is hardly a unique or original message. The story bears a very close resemblance to “Lord of the Flies,” and brings very little new to the table. This is made worse by the fact that we’ve seen a lot of movies like this recently; some titles that come to mind include Children of Men, 28 Days Later, War of the Worlds, and The Happening, in fact The Happening would have probably been a lot like this if it hadn’t been completely inept.
The characters here all fit the same cliché types you’d find in a Hollywood disaster film: You’ve got the leader type in the woman who can see, you’ve got the wide old man in a character played by Danny Glover, you’ve got the hooker with a heart of gold that everyone judges at first but come to respect, you’ve got the kid who’s only there to quietly sit around and up the stakes for the larger group, and you’ve got the unbalanced crazy guy and his henchmen there to act as villains for the group. That’s really the root problem with the movie, deep down it’s just a Hollywood genre movie the ones listed above, it just doesn’t want to admit it. The end result is a movie that’s the worst of both worlds; it’s no more profound or well told than the average disaster movie, yet it’s an extremely depressing, claustrophobic, and unpleasant experience to sit through.
What saves the movie from being a real disaster is some very good acting and production values. The acting in particular has a knack for making the viewer almost forget just how cliché a lot of these characters are. I took issue with the way Julianne Moore portrayed her character early in the film, particularly the airheaded moments when she put herself in jeopardy for no reason, but as the film progressed her performance really grew on me. Moore and her character hold a quiet dignity and strength that really felt like one of the few things that was able to rise above this hellish world that Mierelles managed to create. Mark Ruffalo also played her husband in a very well done, naturalistic way. Gael Garcia Bernal is also very strong as the scenery chewing villain of the piece.
The production qualities are also quite good, particularly the art direction which conveys a really desolate mess of a post-apocalypse in the last few scenes and effectively makes the quarantine facility look every bit as awful as Meirelles seems to want it to be. The cinematography is also pretty interesting. The blind characters describe their condition as an extreme whiteness, like “swimming through milk.” To match this Meirelles took a bold step and seemed to turn the white light on the set up to eleven, leaving the visuals of the movie completely washed out in whiteness for large portions of the film. I’m not sure that this really adds a whole lot to the movie, he would have had to take this a lot further if his goal was to make the audience completely empathize with the blind people on screen, but I don’t think it really hurts the movie much either. It’s an interesting decision that makes the movie unique if nothing else.
The movie does have a number of very good scenes, in fact very few of them fall flat, the problem is that they don’t gel together into a greater whole… at all. Fernando Meirelles has made two great films so far, and I’m sure he’ll make great films in the future, but this one straight up doesn’t work. There are elements here to respect, but the movie is unlikable in many ways. This was a nice try, but a disappointing failure nonetheless.
** out of four