Fernando Meireilles's 2003 breakthrough film, City of God, was a discomfiting masterpiece, a sad tale of children killing children in the slums of Rio de Janeiro that was also one of the most ferociously stylish, entertaining films of the last decade. His 2005 follow-up, The Constant Gardener, was very nearly the opposite: a somewhat silly global conspiracy thriller with a presentation as high-toned and laborious as a brochure from the World Health Organization. I don't know whether Meireilles intended the latter film to serve as penance for the giddiness of the former, but if so it seems he is, alas, still trying to make amends. His latest film, Blindness, makes The Constant Gardener look like, well, City of God.
Adapted from the allegorical novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Meireilles's dour fantasy asks what would happen if everyone in a society went suddenly, inexplicably blind. It is a Big Question that gives rise to disappointingly small answers: civilization is fragile, the strong inevitably brutalize the weak, and all the other lessons you may recall from reading Lord of the Flies in sixth grade.
Like the novel, the film opens at a traffic light, where a man (Yusuke Iseya) fails to hit the gas when the light turns green. Confronted by his understandably perturbed fellow motorists, he declares that he has abruptly lost his sight. Another man (Don McKellar, who also wrote the script) offers to drive him home and, after dropping him off, steals his car. While the first man's wife (Yoshino Kimura) frantically dials eye doctors, her husband fumes, "What kind of person steals from a blind person? He should go blind." Never fear: He will.
So, too, will the first man's wife, and the eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) she takes him to, and the eye doctor's receptionist (Susan Coyne), and his other patients (Danny Glover and Alice Braga among them), and on and on. It's like the old Breck Shampoo commercial ("And she told two friends ... ") except rather than silky hair, the gift being shared is ocular oblivion. Soon, these early victims are rounded up and placed in an abandoned asylum, whose wards gradually fill around them. The entire city, it seems, is going blind.
But it is an odd form of blindness: It has no apparent physical cause, and its victims perceive everything fading not to black but to white. Moreover, there is at least one person apparently immune to the affliction, the eye doctor's wife (Julianne Moore), who nonetheless voluntarily enters the asylum in order to remain with her husband. There, she discovers that, in the land of the blind, the two-eyed woman is nurse, gopher, den mother, and chambermaid.
The inmates begin to create the elements of a functioning, democratic society, but it is not long before the slow accretion of civilization is overwhelmed by an onrush of barbarism. A former bartender in a competing ward (Gael Garcia Bernal) declares himself "king" and begins demanding other inmates' valuables in exchange for the food rations that soldiers leave at the asylum gates. When the valuables run out, the "king" demands that the other wards instead send their blind, broken, bedraggled women to be serially raped by him and his men for hours on end. Meireilles is, of course, too brave and honest a director to leave what follows to the imagination.
I tend to the belief that a film must earn its atrocities, that the deeper the horrors it shows, the deeper its purposes must be. By this measure, Blindness fails terribly. The problem is not that its lessons are ugly ones, though they are. It is that they are obvious ones. The film does not explain human depravity; it merely rubs our noses in it. Moreover, Meireilles seems strangely unaware of the different ways in which we experience film and the printed word. Though the rape scenes in Saramago's novel are, if anything, more graphic than Meireilles's, we have far greater distance from them. We can envision the proceedings as little or as much as we can tolerate. By contrast, Meireilles's dramatizations, while neither gratuitous nor explicit, are inescapable, and sickening enough that the film's hopeful coda feels like a lie.
Nor is this the only way in which Meireilles mismanages the transition from page to screen. Saramago's novel takes place in a nameless city populated by nameless characters, and Meireilles's film follows suit. (Indeed, this faithfulness was evidently mandated by the novelist before he would grant film rights.) In the novel, Saramago's intentions are clear enough by his second vague reference to "the city." But Meireilles had to film in real cities (mostly São Paulo, but also Montevideo and Toronto) with a real cast, which he chose to make aggressively multiethnic. The result is confusion: What city this is, that looks so South American but boasts so many Anglos and Asians (Sandra Oh also makes a brief appearance as the Minister of Health), all speaking English with varied accents? Meireilles has succeeded in conjuring not the generic Anywhere of the novel, but a very particular Nowhere on Earth.
Indeed, the medium of film itself seems almost singularly unsuited to Saramago's fable. Early in the novel, a character describes the white blindness as like "fall[ing] into a milky sea," an impression reinforced by the author's own studiously vague prose--the sentences that run on for lines, the paragraphs that run on for pages, the dearth of quotation marks and other punctuation. Meireilles might have attempted some comparable visual motif but, let's face it, few people want to watch an out-of-focus movie for two hours. So, apart from the occasional showy fade to white, he and cinematographer C ésar Charlone present the story like a hyper-vivid dream. (The repeated Hitchcockian close-ups on a pair of dangling scissors are so overdetermined that one half expects the scissors to leap down and stab someone by themselves.) This is the exceedingly rare film that could use less showing and more telling.
Blindness is a glum, ugly film, and pretentious in the bargain. But, perhaps least excusable, it is a fundamentally ill-conceived film, the visual depiction of a world without sight. It is further evidence, I fear, that a gifted filmmaker is losing his own vision.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.