Blindness is an adaptation of a 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Essay on Blindness) by the Nobel-laureate novelist, playwright and journalist José Saramago. The film adaptation is a Canadian/Brazilian/Japanese co-production by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and written by the Canadian actor/writer/director Don McKellar. McKellar also appears in the film with a truly impressive cast that includes Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael García Bernal. In Blindness a highly contagious condition causes an epidemic of blindness, resulting in the government quarantining all the victims in an abandoned hospital. The victims are given no outside assistance and are left to fend for themselves and decide how they will organise themselves. When a group of men from one ward decide to take control of the food supplies, the quarantined victims of the blinding “white sickness” develop a tribal mentality and things start to get nasty.
In 1998 McKellar wrote, directed and acted in the comedy-drama Last Night. It was a film about the final 6 hours before the end of world and McKellar explored the different ways in which people respond to an extraordinary situation where there was no fear of repercussions. The scenario of Blindness allows for a similar exploration of human nature but in an era that is post Guantánamo Bay and post the botched Hurricane Katrina cleanup, humanity’s capacity for looking after each other seems to now be in serious doubt. Blindness is a disturbing parable about the innate savagery of human beings and our inclination towards violence, suppression and tyranny when we are removed from the laws and social structures that govern us.
The most striking thing about Blindness is its extraordinary use of film style to convey the idea of blindness. There is a heavy use of white light and whiteouts to represent the failed vision of the victims. Many of the shots are unusually framed, blurred or out of focus to constantly remind the audience of the disorienting effects of not having sight. Sound is emphasised and the repeated motif of bars remind the audience that these people are imprisoned. The overall impact is actually so overwhelming that the film becomes difficult to watch as the characters become increasingly wretched. This is most likely the intention but once the film arrives at the point where the wards start acting like tribal groups, with one group exploiting the others, the experience of watching the film becomes almost too unpleasant.
Parabolic in nature, Blindness evokes Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Das Experiment, Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later…, William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies and a lot of the writing by novelist J.G. Ballard. It is not as convincing as any of those texts but it is still a highly effective exercise in nihilism and existentialism, depicting humans as little more than savage animals. The ending does offer some hope for humanity, suggesting that once free of institutionalisation there are some people who can be good to each other. It is a much-needed ending as otherwise Blindness may have been unbearable to endure.