Allegory doesn’t play well at the movies because audiences tend to be literal, rather than literary. Given our post-literate society, a movie that tries to operate on more than one level is automatically at a disadvantage.
Take “Blindness,” based on the novel by the Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Here’s a movie guaranteed to make people uncomfortable, which is the job of a good allegory. But will they be made uncomfortable by what the movie actually depicts – including a long, brutal scene of mass rape – or by what it’s trying to show us indirectly?
“Blindness” takes us firmly into territory already charted by Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” focusing on human entropy. Man’s inhumanity to man – isn’t that, like, the basic building block of allegory? The first concept we’re taught in high-school English?
Yet, if anything, reality outstrips allegory everyday, whether your frame of reference is Abu Ghraib or Darfur. The only difference is that, these days, the global nature of media puts us more quickly in touch with atrocity – so we can see the results of genocide right away, instead of, say, having to wait for World War II to end and the allies to invade to get the story of the Holocaust.
“Blindness,” directed by Fernando Meirelles, is set in an unnamed city (in fact, Meirelles shot in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Guelph, Ontario, Canada) that looks western without looking American. As it starts, an Asian man in a car suddenly goes blind at a stop light. Things haven’t gone black, he says; they’ve gone white.
In short order, he finds his way to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who can find nothing physically wrong with the patient. The doctor goes home and tells his wife (Julianne Moore) about this unusual patient, then wakes up the next morning to discover he also has gone blind.
So, too, have people who are in the ever-widening swath of contacts the first blind man makes – from the doctor’s receptionist and the people in doctor’s waiting room exponentially through the entire country (and, one presumes, the world). Initially, there are few enough that the government can quarantine them in an abandoned hospital, where they are treated like plague carriers: kept locked up, at a distance, to be shot by armed guards should they try to leave.
There is one exception to the wave of sightlessness: the doctor’s wife, played by an increasingly washed-out-looking Moore. She initially feigns blindness, in order to accompany her husband when the military comes to take him away. In short order, she becomes the only sighted person in a building packed with blind people.
Order disintegrates almost as quickly, evidenced by the filth in the hallways, left behind by frustrated blind people who couldn’t find the bathroom. The doctor’s wife can’t/won’t let on that she can see, doing her good deeds (including cleaning up what she can and stringing guide wires) as though she were some super-gifted blind person (the cliché that the loss of one sense enhances the other?).
But even as the doctor tries to establish a self-governing sense of order, particularly regarding the meager food supplies that government dumps at their doorstep, dissenters take over. They’re led by a troublemaker (Gael Garcia Bernal), who declares himself King of Ward 3. Somewhere he gets a pistol; aided by an actual blind man (Maury Chaykin), who knows how to navigate a dark world, he commandeers the hospital’s public address system and announces that Ward 3 is taking over food distribution – and that everyone else has to pay for their food.
When the meager cache of valuables in the building is exhausted, Ward 3 makes a new demand: They want the other wards’ women for sexual gratification, in exchange for food. This leads to the film’s roughest section, an ugly orgy of rape and violence that eventually galvanizes the rest of the blind and the doctor’s wife into rebellion.
Meirelles’ visual scheme is a blizzard of white-out moments, as light floods the screen, erasing all images, then eases off as images begin to come back into focus. His literary scheme is something else – and that’s what may frustrate some viewers, who would rather have things spelled out for them.
Does this blindness represent humanity’s unwillingness to see the brutality around them in the world? Is it a stand-in for the Iraq war? Or perhaps the unwillingness to see the planetary destruction we inflict everyday? Pick a problem – it probably fits the bill.
Do we need a movie like this to remind us of our inability to help our fellow humans – whether the victims of violence elsewhere on the globe or the victim of economic violence panhandling on your local street corner?
Yes, of course, we do. Aside from its artistic daring, its strong performances and its unflinchingly downbeat feeling, “Blindness” is one of those much-needed exercises that forces the viewer to think, “I wonder what I would do.”
There’s nothing remotely feel-good about “Blindness.” Would that more movies had its courage to leave viewers upset and angry.