Perhaps this wasn't the best date movie. Saturday night April and I went with our friends Mark and Merissa to see Blindness, the new film from Fernando Meirelles, director of the acclaimed City of God and The Constant Gardener. We knew the film's premise everyone goes blind except for one woman but not just how hard Meirelles was going to hit us with the idea.
Like the Portuguese novel its adapted from the characters in Blindness are unnamed, as is the setting. It all begins when an Asian man driving to work stops his car in the middle of the street since he's spontaneously lost his sight. Everything happens as one might expect. People honk and yell and try and drive around him. Eventually people help him and a seemingly friendly man drives him home.
The recently blinded man goes to see an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who is baffled by the case. His wife (Julianne Moore) only expresses mild interest as he tells her about the strange patient over dinner. That changes the following morning when the doctor wakes up to find himself suffering from the same white blindness as his patient. It's not long before the government decides to quarantine those suffering from the strange disease. The doctor and his wife who lies that she's blind too so she can stay with him find themselves in a ward with three other people from the doctor's waiting room, the first to be infected: a man with an eye patch (Danny Glover,) a young boy (Mitchell Nye,) and a prostitute with dark glasses (Alice Braga.)
It's not long before the disease spreads and more people start being forced into the quarantine center. It soon becomes overcrowded and filthy. There is not anyone to take care of all the blind people and soon raw sewage starts to fill the halls. Eventually there's a struggle for power as one group, armed with a pistol and led by the self-proclaimed King of Ward Three (Gael Garcia Bernal,) seizes all available food. He at first demands the wards trade their valuables. When those have been handed over one should guess what he demands next. All the while the doctor's wife's sight remains a secret as she struggles with the responsibility that her advantage demands.
Coming out of the film April and I were electrified. We exchanged interpretations of the parable's philosophical implications, the horror of the intense emotional experience, and the unique white visuals. Mer-Mer and Mark described being bored. I suspect that those are going to be the two general responses with a third being the impulse to escape by walking out of the theatre.
There's no argument about it: Blindness is an intensely unpleasant, painful film. The situation it creates is truly a version of hell. It's a blending of the most disturbing aspects of Lord of the Flies, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, and Schindler's List. The events depicted in the quarantine ward are both disturbing and true. This is probably what would happen if people were actually thrown into this situation. And its ideas are steep and complex.
I argue that it's better to feel miserable and depressed than nothing. Many people don't like sad or disturbing films. They don't want to cry. And that's fine. Don't see Blindness, then. Others can appreciate the emotional and intellectual rush of confronting this kind of material.
Amidst all the midnight darkness, though, there are flashes of humanity. The characters may be in a nightmare situation but they're still able to develop tender relationships and find salvation in one another. Further there are even splashes of humor thrown into the bleak narrative. It's a unique feeling for a film to bring you to laughter when it has kept you in such a subdued state.
While I was thrilled to discover Blindness as one of the year's greatest films, perhaps for the next double-date we'll go for something less soul-shattering.