In Fernando Meirelles' land of the blind, the one-eyed man isn't king -- the morally degenerate opportunist is. After a mysterious plague of sightlessness strikes an anonymous city, a shadowy Orwellian government quarantines the afflicted in a decommissioned sanitarium, leaving them to duke it out over an ever-dwindling supply of TV dinners. Only Julianne Moore, the mousy wife of an ophthalmologist, retains her sight, but she keeps it a secret so she won't be separated from her husband (Mark Ruffalo). Gradually, she assumes leadership of the blind against the growing menace of the self-appointed "King of Ward 3" (Gael Garcia Bernal), a bartender turned petty dictator. The one-eyed man (Danny Glover) is incidental.
"Blindness" is based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author Jose Saramago, a dystopian allegory about the human condition, mass behavior in times of heightened fear and our general disinclination to see what's right in front of our eyes. The book is written in a distinctly interior style that lends it a quality at once intimate and universal. Meirelles, who also directed "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener," has attempted to convey the tone of the book by leaving the city and the characters unnamed, but it's not a gambit suited to film, where characters are observed from the outside in rather than from the inside out.
Moore has come to specialize in a particular form of Hollywood-style suffering, which she deploys again here. (The movie may be a Canadian-Brazilian-Japanese co-production, but it aims squarely for that Hollywood feel.) But the dry-lipped pallor and tragedy-mask pain ring hollow in a movie driven by ideas rather than emotion. Other actors seem hamstrung by their roles as allegorical figures, at times seeming to be awkwardly standing around representing things. Ruffalo is Ironic Obliviousness. Alice Braga, playing a call girl in dark glasses, is Anonymous Carnality. The little boy played by Mitchell Nye is Innocence. Glover is Morgan Freeman.
Something inert and theatrical results from keeping the characters locked up when society is breaking down outside, in what would presumably be a more visual, large-scale way. Occasionally, the screen fades to a milky white that is intended to mimic what the characters experience when they lose their vision, but this has the unfortunate effect of stylizing their affliction. Director of photography Cesar Charlone's bleached-out music-video style doesn't do much for the movie's attempts at gravitas; neither does a slick and self-serious score by Marco Antonio Guimaraes. What was presumably intended to play like a fable plays, instead, like an overly long car commercial crossed with a scare-mongering public service announcement.
The movie opens on an everyday scene of mass chaos -- a traffic jam -- made worse when a man at a stoplight suddenly goes blind. A handful of people come to his aid, including a car thief (Don McKellar), who drives him home and steals his car. Later that evening, the blind man's wife takes him to see Ruffalo's ophthalmologist, who's so oblivious to the world around him that he fails to notice that the dessert his wife has served him is a tiramisu, not a tart. (Later, in quarantine, he fails to notice that a tart is not his wife.)
Before long, the thief, the doctor, his wife and his patients meet again in lockup, where their only contact with the outside world comes from a government video playing on endless loop and a staticky radio that Glover's man with an eye patch has managed to smuggle in. ("Either the blindness spread the panic, or the panic spread the blindness," he informs a group of inmates hungry for any tautological news of the world.) They are kept from escaping by a handful of jumpy, violent, undertrained guards and given no guidance or support. The doctor attempts to establish some degree of order inside the prison, but his efforts are undermined by the terrible conditions, low morale and his own crumbling sense of dignity.
Things devolve into chaos when the residents of Ward 3 mock his "diplomatic mission," take control of the food supply and start demanding payment from the other inmates in whatever form it can be extracted, including flesh.
This sounds, increasingly, like just another day in the 21st century. Saramago was making a point about our greed, rage and incivility, particularly in times of heightened fear. But our state of heightened fear has become permanent and institutional in the years since the book was published in 1999, leading to, among other things, an outbreak of outbreak movies. But compared with more successful examples, such as "Children of Men," "28 Days Later" and even the spotty "I Am Legend" (which also featured Braga as a mother-surrogate leading an orphaned boy through the apocalypse), "Blindness" feels stilted, claustrophobic and more stylish than substantial.
The blind lead the blind all over the place in this movie, in halting conga lines that are meant to symbolize our interdependence on one another. The movie's ragtag group of archetypes may be lucky, as one of them remarks, to have "a leader with vision" who can forage and fight for a hunk of forgotten salami, but the scope of that vision appears to be as limited as ever.
"Blindness." MPAA rating: R for violence including sexual assaults, language and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 2 hours. In English and some Japanese with English subtitles. In wide release.