In his previous, better films City of God and The Constant Gardener, Fernando Mereilles displayed a lack of directorial subtlety that would make Spike Lee blush, but even they were no preparation for his new movie Blindness, which is an unholy symphony of bludgeoning metaphors and moral dubiousness. Blindness’ failure is so complete that it almost reaches a kind of pathetic grandeur. Here is a movie in which no aesthetic decision works, and which aims for shock, fear, and soaring emotional resonance, but instead achieves nothing but vacuous clichés. It’s a gumbo of pretentious symbolism and portentous ethics, and the most thoroughly misguided Hollywood debacle since Babel.
Unlike that film, however, Blindness is so bad that it occasionally stretches into unintentional comedy. What else can a thinking audience do when subjected in the opening minutes to machine-gun editing and the introduction of the film’s sledgehammer central metaphor: a plague of sudden, inexplicable blindness descends upon an enormous city in the midst of a traffic jam. The city itself, like all the characters, remains unnamed throughout, and is perfectly calibrated to look a little like a half-dozen cities throughout the world—let’s call it New Berlinokyo de Janeiro. I assume this kind of vagueness added a Kafka-like parable feel to the 1995 source novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, but here it just adds to the fiasco; everything about this supposed cautionary tale is vague to the point of meaninglessness.
Technology is never given as the explicit cause of the epidemic—obviously any exposition or explanation whatsoever just hampers the universality of your inane important point—but Mereilles certainly wants us to ponder if perhaps our emotional senses are being gummed up by all this stuff, man. A typical early scene proceeds: Shot of somebody walking through their apartment shouting “I can’t see!” then cut to a still life of fruit sitting in an IKEA-style bowl on their table. Likewise the plague’s sudden appearance in a faceless, honking traffic jam. It’s like, you know, like, we’re all so cut off from one another. Like, blind, like.
The Japanese man who first goes blind eventually sees his doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who then goes home and explains the case to his wife (Julianne Moore). Meanwhile, the infection spreads throughout the city, going through a wizened blind man (Danny Glover), a classy hooker (Alice Braga), and a bartender (Gael Garcia Bernal) in a series of scenes that play like Outbreak’s cartoon hysterics mixed with C.S.I.’s bogus, faux-urban hyperactivity. The toxic, bleached-out hideousness of this film cannot be overstated; Mereilles, visually overenunciating the fact that the blindness is said to be “like drowning in milk,” constantly whitewashes his screen as if we couldn’t imagine the effect ourselves. It's the perfect example of an effect that plays well on a TV or YouTube screen, but when blown up to cinema size—you know, like a movie—it's physically painful to endure. At least Mereilles does the audience a favor and periodically forces us to look away, if only out of ocular stress.
The disease spreads, and soon everyone we’ve met ends up in a derelict hospital-cum-quarantine unit, where the tone moves from Outbreak to Lord of the Flies. The military is stationed outside, guns at the ready should any newly sightless plague hosts feel the need to stumble and grasp their way out. This middle section, set in the increasingly filthy and lawless three-ward building, is such an offensive disaster that it truly needs to be seen to be believed. Moore, the doctor’s wife, is the only seeing person in the hospital, a fact which she bizarrely keeps hidden rather than assuming her rightful position as the two-eyed queen of this land of the blind. Soon piss and shit cover the hallways, unclean people walk zombie-like through the ward, and food rations dry up. The talking characters are plucked indelicately from every disaster movie ever made: Braga’s maternal whore with a heart of gold; Glover’s magical negro with a monologue for every occasion; Moore and Ruffalo’s earnest white people trying to hold everyone together; Bernal’s misogynistic, gun-wielding villain and attendant thugs; there’s even a helpless child whose subjection to atrocity is supposed to wring sympathy but instead just makes the similarly degenerate tactic in Pan’s Labyrinth look nearly tasteful.
Mereilles’ amoral coup de grace, however, comes in the form of a dimly lit gang rape scene that occurs after Bernal’s crew takes control of the wards and demands sex in exchange for food. Astounding aesthetic ugliness notwithstanding, this scene deserves every disdainful review it’s received. This is what happens when a Bruckheimer-low sense of subtlety mixes with extraordinary moral self-righteousness and technical ineptitude. In this awful, degrading display, Blindness shares with Babel the message that an audience cannot be trusted to empathize with pain unless it is made visual and vulgar. Just as Alejandro Gonzáles Iñnáritu lingered mercilessly and unnecessarily on a horrifying Moroccan surgery scene, so too does Mereilles subject us to a sequence filled with gagging blowjobs and other wanton sexual cruelty that escapes the realm of snuff porn only by virtue of the fact that it’s not real.
The only thing that would make such a sick cinematic move more awful is if the director masked it with a sanctimonious cry for peace at the film’s end. Mereilles is happy to oblige, and thus accepts his place in the hallowed ranks of celluloid’s most perverse schlockmeisters. We're asked in the third act to forget the nonstop display of human indecency that Mereilles has shoved down our throats and embrace the idea that it all could be avoided if we just band together in a snugly multiracial and polyglot dinner party. Such a party should only be held, of course, after the civilized world has effectively decimated itself—once the buildings have become mossgrown, the evil capitalist businesses have been looted and gouged, and—wait for it—that shallow fruit in the IKEA bowl has rotted. (Yes, Mereilles gets really hung up on the societal implications of that poor dish.) Only then will the milk clear from everyone’s eyes.
Bullshit. Mereilles takes silly ideas and relentlessly vile imagery and wraps them in a fake humanism that, like Babel, only inspires vapid helplessness. It caters to people who blame technology for a perceived societal decline in empathy, then gives them further proof of man’s awfulness before posing an insultingly reductive “answer” to the problem: just talk to one another. If you want more substantive grappling with technological unease, read DeLillo’s White Noise, or watch Jacques Tati’s visually innovative (and beautiful) Mon Oncle. No coincidence that both of these works cut their inherent dread with humor; if we accept Olivier’s trope that death is easy and comedy is hard, the Mereilles/Iñnáritu school is the laziest group of artists alive.
Blindness. Directed by Fernando Mereilles. Miramax Films, 120 minutes, rated R. Now contributing to our collective cultural decline in theaters everywhere.