[Screen It]

(2008) (Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: Save for one woman who fakes being in the same state, various people must contend with being institutionalized when they become afflicted with a contagious form of blindness.
On an ordinary day in a big city, a Driver (YUSUKE ISEYA) suddenly goes blind while on the road, with a Thief (DON McKELLAR) taking advantage of that strange situation. The Driver's Wife (YOSHINO KIMURA) takes him to see an eye specialist, but the Doctor (MARK RUFFALO) can't find anything wrong with him, and is mystified that the Driver's visual state is marked by all encompassing milky white rather than pitch blackness. It's not long, however, before those in the Doctor's office, including a Boy (MITCHELL NYE), the Man with the Black Eye Patch (DANNY GLOVER) and even the doctor himself, similarly go blind, indicating the illness is contagious.

It soon spreads to others, including an apparent prostitute, the Woman with the Dark Glasses (ALICE BRAGA), but oddly enough, not the Doctor's Wife (JULIANNE MOORE). When those afflicted are rounded up by the government and put into an abandoned asylum/hospital, she goes along, feigning blindness so that she can stay with and care for her husband. It's not long, however, before she starts caring for others in their ever-growing ward, although only her husband knows she can see, including the sight of armed guards who won't allow any of them to leave.

Things become more complicated when a bartender (GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL) proclaims himself the king of his ward and then of the entire asylum. With a Lieutenant (MAURY CHAYKIN), who was born blind and thus had an advantage over those more recently afflicted, as his enforcer, the King sets up his own rules, thus putting a greater strain on those now under his control. From that point on, the Doctor's Wife must decide what she should and can do about this development and their overall situation.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
For as much as we humans think our intelligence, civilization and modern technological marvels firmly differentiate us from the rest of the animal world, when push comes to shove, many of our kind resort to far more primitive ways. Just look at the hording instinct that kicks in when a snowstorm is predicted to hit (although I'm not sure how far the standard run on staples of milk, bread and toilet paper would carry us), or how some people reacted to unrealized predictions of doom and gloom when clocks worldwide struck 12:00 am on 1/1/2000.

Imagine then, what would happen should something really devastating occur, such as an epidemic of contagious blindness. That's the premise of the appropriately titled "Blindness," a cautionary tale about mankind's reaction to such devolutionary chaos. Adapted by Don McKellar from José Saramago's novel, the film marks the third outing of Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian filmmaker who erupted onto the cinematic scene with the masterpiece "City of God" and followed that up a few years later with the good, but not as spectacular "The Constant Gardener."

I appreciate what the filmmaker is after here in terms of theme, visual sense and the overall effort as a parable not only of humans' frightening ease into which they can resort to animal instinct, but also the human treachery that can occur, be that in terms of general incivility toward others, infidelity in a marriage, or the government's blanket handling of emergencies and related suspension of civil rights.

My gripe is that the pic doesn't always play out realistically. When the first character -- none of them are ever named -- is stricken with sudden blindness while driving, the reaction isn't entirely believable (beyond the usual stumbling about and shock, the man doesn't seem particularly freaked out by what's inexplicably happened), which also holds true for the eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) seeing him. And when that blindness then becomes contagious, the doc's wife (Julianne Moore) doesn't seem particularly concerned that she'll also be afflicted.

Apparently that's because she read the screenplay and knows she's to be the token seer -- literally and metaphorically -- in a prison ward of sorts where all such afflicted people are taken. There, she predictably becomes the nurse and mother figure to everyone (doing the wash, guiding people to and fro, etc.) but despite having the visual advantage, she allows a self-proclaimed dictator (Gael García Bernal) to take over and submit those who aren't his followers to despicable degradation. Her fear is obviously part of that inaction, but when the tyrant demands that each ward submit its women for sex in exchange for food rations, you'd think she would have already gone Chuck Bronson on them.

Interestingly and quite surprisingly, the storytellers don't do a reversal of the classic twist in "Wait Until Dark." In that film, Audrey Hepburn's blind character turns the tables on the intruders in her house by eliminating their ability to see. Here, I kept expecting a similar scene to that in "The Silence of the Lambs" where Jodie Foster's character is down in the serial killer's lair, blindly groping in front of her, not knowing who or what she might bump into. Alas, none of that occurs here.

Instead, and with all of the thematic and metaphorical elements aside, the pic simply becomes like most any other post apocalyptic flick, with people and the city in which they live quickly devolving into a chaotic mess. In short, it's a zombie film without the undead or the related action.

While I'm sure there will be those who see all sorts of deep meaning in what Meirelles is showing (the symbolic irony, of course, being that such visual examples, not to mention the highly artistic visual look of the proceedings, occur amidst all of the blindness), it's not a novel idea (see "The Lord of the Flies" and other such stories) and clearly not that engaging of one. "Blindness" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2008 / Posted October 3, 2008

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