Friday, October 03, 2008

"Blindness" is more an experiment than a scenario for a "mega-disaster"; attracts protests!

First, this new film “Blindness” has generated some protests. At least, when I saw it tonight at an AMC Theater complex in northern Virginia, there were about ten demonstrators with signs outside the ticket office. I hadn’t heard about this, unless the case with “Tropic Thunder” where the protests were covered in the media.

This is not the first film by this name. There is a 1998 drama directed by Anna Chi. But the film is a bit of an event, since the Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles, previously offered us “City of God” through Miramax. (This time the film has distribution from both Miramax and Focus Features.) The outdoor scenes, many in Sao Paolo and Montevideo, are among the most effective in the film, as the “city” becomes deserted in squalor, a sight already known from films like the “28 Days” movies (London), Doomsday (also London, from smallpox), and even “Open Your Eyes” (Madrid). The lighting in the film is overexposed and the colors in sepia, to simulate the mood of the afflicted.

This movie (based on a novel by Jose Saramango) is more of a sociological experiment that a “mega-disaster” movie. But first, for the medical premise. The movie starts with some shots of stoplights, and then a young Japanese man, sitting in a crowd, screams that he has gone blind. A kindly stranger takes him home and his wife takes him to the doctor (Mark Ruffalo). It seems that in a few seconds the normal field of vision is filled with whiteness (that would be awful when closing your eyes to sleep). Is this medically possible? Maybe a virus could infect the optic nerve or the brain tissue connected to it. But it wouldn’t be easily transmissible as in the movie. People with HIV sometimes go blind from opportunistic infections of the retina, but that takes some time. And a disease like this probably would not be “self-limiting.” (I add one note from personal experience from someone I met on the job a few years ago: a cause of blindness in some older people stems back from the 1940s and early 50s when sometimes babies were left on oxygen too long.)

Nevertheless, in 24 hours this has become a pandemic, and the authorities “quarantine” the afflicted in what looks like an asylum. The patients are left to fend for themselves with limited food rations. Conditions deteriorate quickly, mainly because the city outside becomes overwhelmed so quickly, a fact not known to the victims until toward the end of the movie. Because most of the film takes place in the confines of the “prison” and has to deal with the concept that the protagonists cannot see even that, it becomes confining. (It is filmed in regular aspect ratio,) You really don’t get the full sense of horror until they escape outside. By way of comparison, the Japanese film “Pulse” may be the most effective of all in conveying an existential horror destroying the inhabitants of a city.

The people really do become savage. A newcomer played by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Bad Education”), scruffy this time, anoints himself king and somehow gets a little control of the food rationing among the wards, for a while, but then they get into a food for sex swap. One woman can see, staying with her husband, but that does not figure into the story much until the end. The film was tricky to act, and playing in it is not a challenge that all actors would relish.

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