Director: Fernando Meirelles
With: Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore
Released: November 28
Remember a time when the cinema provided some escapism from real life? Me neither. In the past few months, horror films such as The Happening have been wailing that we're all just one disaster away from stabbing each other in the back, while pessimism regarding the human condition has dripped through genres ranging from thrillers (No Country For Old Men) to historical dramas (There Will Be Blood).
But no recent mainstream movie has been more gruellingly negative than Blindness, from the director of City Of God and The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles. Adapted from the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramango, it begins, unsurprisingly, with several characters going blind. There's no known cause: their vision simply goes white. Even more mysterious, the condition seems to be contagious, and as it spirals into an epidemic, the sufferers are quarantined. A blinded opthalmologist Mark Ruffalo, is shut away in a make-shift refugee camp in an old sanitarium, along with a few dozen others. His wife, Julianne Moore, is immune to the illness but pretends to be blind to accompany him. There are armed guards around the perimeter, but no supervision in the building. Moore is the only sighted person in what is essentially a prison crammed with frightened and angry inmates.
In the hands of most directors, a plague of blindness would kick off an action-packed disaster movie, populated by senior politicians thumping their desks, and lab-coated tough guys working round the clock to find a cure. Mereilles' film is a grimmer, more serious affair; a Lord Of The Flies-style allegory which asks why it is that some people have power over others, and what it takes to keep society functioning.
The trouble is, Mereilles is so determined not to make a clichéd Hollywood blockbuster that he veers over to the other extreme. As the filthy, over-crowded hospital becomes more and more hellish, there are a couple of exciting moments, and a few glimmers of gallows humour, but essentially Blindness is one long slide into despair, with little plotting or characterisation to light the way. It's a disappointment from a director whose first two feature films had similarly weighty subject matter but also had edge-of-your-seat stories to go with them.
To Mereilles' credit, there's nothing flippant or hackneyed about Blindness. It maintains its grave tone without wavering. But most audiences will feel, like the characters, that it's a tough ordeal to endure. The only escapism on offer is what you get when you leave the cinema.