Beginning with a single man (Yusuke Iseya), stricken instantaneously and unexpectedly sightless at a traffic signal, a plague takes the country, blinding an ever-increasing portion of the population. Others the man has contacted, including the nameless doctor (Ruffalo) who treats him are soon hit by the otherwise symptom-less disease, which leaves victims seeing only translucent white, like they’re “swimming in milk.” Blindness, a screen adaptation of Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel, explores the probable effects of a widespread and incurable epidemic in the present day, though the storyline’s most far-fetched aspects suggest the film is really an obtuse metaphor never fully elaborated.
The panicked government’s near-immediate reaction is military-enforced quarantine, imprisoning the afflicted in an abandoned mental hospital. Though apparently immune to the disease’s effects, the character identified only as “the Doctor’s Wife” (Moore), fakes blindness in order to accompany her husband to the quarantine facility, where the sick are essentially abandoned — no doctors running tests, no nurses giving care, only guards haphazardly distributing food and snipers threatening to shoot anyone stepping out of line. As the only visual witness to the horrors of humans reduced to animals low on the food chain, imprisoned and sightless stumbling through their own filth, Moore’s character is the film’s only nod to humanity’s capacity for decency. She uses her continuing sight to defend and care for the newly blind, though the terror and savagery surrounding her make the task impossible. Ruffalo’s character likewise attempts nobility as the chief spokesperson and protector of his ward in the segmented quarantine hell, though his own helplessness becomes painfully evident, and the man dependent on his wife to even wipe his ass is soon broken, resentful of his caretaker.
But man’s proclivity for resenting those on whom he relies is one of the milder aspects of human nature explored in the film. Gael Garcia Bernal, in a nausea-inducing performance as the “king,” soulless and self-proclaimed, of the former mental hospital, exploits the sightless to extremes painful to watch. As our only fellow witness to these horrors, Moore’s character becomes the audience’s anchor point, and her basic and nigh-on unrealistic goodness keep her sympathetic while those around her become increasingly reminiscent of our own human weakness. Moore’s performance is captivating though her actions often feel unmotivated. Pre-plague, the film shows her as a neglected and likely alcoholic wife, who unhesitantly accompanies her nearly indifferent husband to quarantine, though her apparent immunity should’ve made her the subject of countless tests and possibly the key to a cure.
The film’s depiction of widespread plague feels regrettably small-scope, with the principal characters restricted to a single building while the world descends into sightless chaos, scrambling for scraps of food in the traffic-less streets, and Glover’s radio-equipped exposition functions as the product of a malfunctioning plot, the archetypical black mystic helping the audience, practically as confined as the quarantined, catch up with the world at large in a disjointed and oddly paced storyline. Blindness is a brutal examination of humanity in crisis; it’s relentless but ultimately it offers nothing substantial other than a vague gratefulness that our world, for all its ugliness, has not faded to a milky haze. •