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Blithe and Doom

Listless Characters Makes This Catastrophe Movie A Heedless Rumination

Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo Watch It All Come Apart.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 10/1/2008

The citizens of a nameless megalopolis--lined with palm trees but looking as gloomy and rain-swept as Berlin on a very bad day--start to go blind thanks to an inexplicable viral contagion. An optometrist (Mark Ruffalo) is herded, along with his chipper wife (Julianne Moore) and other victims of this plague of sightlessness, into an abandoned hospital by a spooked government. The wife, whose peepers are still operational, goes half-mad trying to make sure that (mostly) everyone stays fed and bathed. And then a new victim (Gael García Bernal) arrives with a firearm and plans to take control of the hospital's food supply.

Blindness was adapted from the lump-in-throat 1995 novel by Nobel laureate José Saramango, a linguistically dazzling exploration of some very primal fears. It stars fine, art house-friendly actors. It was directed by Fernando "City of God" Meirelles. It should be pretty good, right?

Well, when the director isn't indulging in cheesy tricks such as the endless whiteout transitions between scenes, the movie is bleakly beautiful. From excrement-smeared hospital hallways to dogs devouring fresh corpses to the movie's inescapably sour blue-white atmosphere, Meirelles is plenty successful at visualizing the blanket horror of society's collapse. There's something perversely appealing about lavishing such lush cinematography on such pallid skin and squalid settings.

Unfortunately, Meirelles is far less successful at creating characters who can carry the movie's timeworn theme. By now, don't audiences already know that the end of the world is gonna be some nasty shit that forces mankind to decide between nobility and sacrifice or a return to everyone-for-themselves animal impulses? While Saramango was able to explore such potentially hoary stuff with far more nuance in the novel, at the movie's weakest, the titular ailment feels like a novelty twist on your standard Sci-Fi Channel "day after" movie, albeit one shot through a downbeat Euro/art cinema filter.

Devoid of backstory or a flicker of inner life, the characters, identified only by their professions, come off as ciphers who exist merely to suffer. (Some kind of alarm should go off when kindly Danny Glover shows up to stiffly deliver well-written but too-stagy exposition about the fate of the outside world.) And Bernal's inexplicably selfish madman was sent from post-apocalypse central casting. The nasty thugs in his crew are the food-hoarding heavies there to allow Ruffalo's bathetic optometrist to deliver speeches about the importance of traditional morality in the face of a mores-eradicating cataclysm. Oh, and to force Moore's beleaguered wife to finally go violently over the edge. In order to prove that even the noblest of humans will eventually cross a moral line when pressed hard enough.

Certain sequences in Blindness are so abject that they suck the breath of out of you; a scene that can only be described as a mass rape is damn near hands-over-your-eyes unbearable. But when the audience is unable to empathize with the nameless victims, sitting through beautifully shot violence and degradation becomes drably exploitative rather than illuminating. And the out-of-nowhere redemptive note of the movie's last 10 minutes only underlines its sadism; Blindness dares to offer the 11th-hour panacea of a happy Hollywood ending after rubbing your nose in atrocity for two hours.

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