All the Lights are Turned On
I tried to make a film that floats a bit, that can be seen from different perspectives.
—Fernando Meirelles, “A Vision of Blindness” (2008)
Even before he goes blind, the ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) is not seeing clearly. This much is indicated in his busy day at the office, where the white-appointed waiting room is never empty, and where he meets an odd case. The frame keeps him divided from the young man (Yusuke Iseya) who has suddenly lost his sight, panicky on the other side of the doctor’s desk. “It’s like all the lights are turned on,” he says, whitish POV shots intimating his perspective. The patient’s anxious wife (Yoshino Kimura), pressed to the back of the frame, wonders whether the doctor is even hearing them correctly. As she tries to calm her husband, the doctor scribbles notes to the hospital staff, and then, they all go separate ways.
When the doctor’s at home, Blindness presses the point of limits: his wife (Julianne Moore) appears through a door frame in the kitchen, preparing desert with a something like a vengeance, the blender roaring so she can’t hear his attempt to describe his strange case. They look and speak past one another, debating the etymologies of “agnosticism” and “agnosia,” the last being the doctor’s first guess as to how the Japanese patient lost his sight.
If he has suffered a “loss of knowledge,” or lost his capacity to recognize familiar objects, shapes, and smells, the movie never lets on. Based on Nobel prize-winner José Saramago’s novel, Blindness makes broadly metaphorical use of lost sight, by rendering the experience with literalizing techniques. Frames are constrained or obscured, images are fluid (as if “swimming in milk,” as one blind man later terms it), and the mobile camera emphasizes the abject shakiness the suddenly blind person feels—no bearings, no balance, no sense of space. Certainly the early scenes showing the first patient’s onset: in traffic, he’s suddenly unable to drive, then besieged by angry yells and tapped horns. The shots ricochet from long to tight, the light is too bright, so figures blur, edgeless.
The first man’s experience is repeated, more slowly, the next morning, when the doctor wakes and can’t see. Assuming he’s been infected by a contagion, he tries to push his wife away, but she insists on helping him touching and speaking to him. Again, the imagery is hectic and difficult, the couple appears through the bathroom door, he backs out of frame, she turns away from the camera. You’re getting the feeling that what you don’t see means something, but it’s beyond you. Even when authorities arrive to take the doctor away in a van—infected individuals are being quarantined in rudimentary camps—the wife goes along, asserting that she’s gone blind too, though she hasn’t.
The film now lurches into a second act, where the doctor and his wife, along with other newly blind citizens are herded into barracks. At first, they’re guarded by men in hazmat gear and carrying large guns, instructed to keep the victims separate from everyone else. Soon, though, it becomes clear that there is no “everyone else,” as the contagion spreads, this framing storyline noted in awkward exposition scenes that run on a scratchy wall-mounted TV (an anchor announces new rules and breaking chaos) or parallel to the barracks story. A health minister (Sandra Oh) strides purposely in long hallways with men in suits, until she too goes blind, an announcement she makes in grand fashion, denoting the hurrying end of order.
At the barracks, the inmates are divided into wards. As the doctor’s wife observes their new roommates, she doesn’t say that she can see. As she watches, we watch too, and as she looks away, the camera cuts back to her, so you can watch (share) her embarrassment or upset. As her husband begins to resent her (she’s able to care for him and the others that seems maternal, or worse, like a “doctor”), she also resents doing all that caring. “You’re afraid to close your eyes,” he observes one early night, his hand roving over her face. “No,” she says, looking up stubbornly through his fingers, her pale complexion almost translucent under the institutional lights. “I’m afraid to open my eyes. I’m afraid I’ll go blind in my sleep.”
This exchange speaks to the fear that permeates the place—though they contrive systems for bathing, walking, and eating (food is delivered in cases, allotted to each ward by men in masks)—they are daily living inside disorder. You recognize individuals whose sighted lives were noted briefly in the film’s opening scenes: a prostitute (Alice Braga), a boy (Mitchell Nye), a thief (screenwriter Don McKellar), as well as the Japanese man with his wife, also blind now. A man (Danny Glover) who appears briefly in the doctor’s office before the infection shows up again in the barracks, providing (rather too tediously) wise counsel and a transistor radio for waning news reports.
Here, even as the blind devolve into competing factions, bitter, angry, with nothing to lose, the film starts to look like a slow-motion, blasted-white version of Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus (City of God): increasingly violent, scrapping for power or food, the inmates are frightening or bullying (or both), especially one young man who declares himself the King of Ward Three (Gael García Bernal). The tension between him and the doctor’s wife is a function of knowledge, its loss and pretense: “I’ll remember your voice,” he threatens her after one showdown. “I’ll remember your face,” she snarls back. The king has a gun, which grants him the crude authority of a Lil Dice. “I’ve got a secret for you,” he asserts, trying to menace the wife. “I’m smart. When I got blind, I started to think better.”
Because the film positions you with Ward One members (and especially, here, close to the wife’s face, shadowed and horrified), this self-assessment is cast as wrong. But he and everyone else are thinking differently, about how to survive, how to forge a community. The king has found his way through turmoil, embracing it and declaring himself in charge, while the wife must also, in her own way, embrace darkness, a kind of brutality she would never have imagined before.
In such moments, the film makes its political metaphor plain enough. During crisis, morality is refigured, vision is limited and lost, stakes and sides are remeasured cruelly. The aesthetic allusions are more intriguing, though, as Blindness works to show what can’t be shown, to find a visual language for what’s not visual. Abstract, alternately emulous and too wily, it embraces contradictions that it can’t sort out, a movie pushing against the limits of the medium.