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REVIEW : Blindness (2008)

February 25, 2009

Based upon the 1995 novel Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira (literally Essay on Blindness) by the Portuguese Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago, Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Blindness serves to demonstrate the conceptual limitations of the allegory as a narrative device.  Where the book was an allegory about allegories, the film aims for the allegorical only to collapse into a film about the relationships between characters who were only ever supposed to be symbols.

Movie Poster

Movie Poster

Blindness begins with a blind man (Yusuke Iseya) having his car stolen and the indignities only get worse from that minute on :  A blind escort (Alice Braga) is dumped naked in a hallway while her customer runs off without paying and the blind are taken from their home and put on trucks once the blindness turns into a mass epidemic.  Left to their own devices in an old sanatorium by the guards (who are there to shoot them if they try to escape, not help them), the blind struggle to feed and look after themselves leading to the floors becoming covered in filth as accidents turn into injuries and injuries turn into infections that turn into corpses.  The film’s initially slow pacing and concern with the nuts and bolts of how the poor feed themselves has an almost ghoulish quality to it.  A whiff of pure exploitation as the blind bump into each other and sit around stark naked.  However, no indignity is as harsh as those that the blind people inflict upon themselves.

Among the first group of blind people to be dumped in the sanatorium is a Doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his mysteriously still sighted Wife (Julianne Moore).  Between them, they organise the blind and find a way for people to feed and look after themselves.  However, this little system is then turned upside down when hundreds more blind people are dumped into the building.  Bitter and resentful about the loss of their sight and being herded onto trucks, these new people refuse to integrate the little world created by the Doctor and his Wife.  When someone proclaims themselves the Kind of Ward Three (Gael Garcia Bernal), the safe space becomes a living hell as gangs start to form and before long the King of Ward Three is withholding food unless he and his cronies are paid in jewels and sexual services.  If the opening section’s motif is the value of collective action and bold leadership then the second section’s motif is a warning of the dangers of these techniques in the wrong hands; you can organise yourself and work together for the greater good, but you can also do so to serve your own ends.

When confronted with the demand that the women be sent out, the blind men retreat beneath the expedient veneer of feminism.  Lacking any means of getting food other than prostitution,  the women look to the men to defend them but the men quickly say that the decision is that of the women alone and should they wish to prostitute themselves then they will have to live with the hurt pride.  Initially agreeing to this exploitation, the Doctor’s Wife uses the opportunity to kill the King of Ward Three.  Sending the sanatorium into a state of war that results in the building catching fire.  As the blind huddle for safety in the courtyard, terrified of being shot by the guards, the Doctor’s Wife realises that the guards are not there and leads a small group out of the sanatorium to food and safety.  She shoulders the burdens of leadership with good grace right up until the moment the first man to lose his sight suddenly regains it, spreading hope throughout the group that they too will get their sight back given time and that civilisation might have the chance to rebuild itself.  Just as the second section reverses the political message of the first section, the third section reverses that of the second by suggesting that a benevolent dictatorship run by “a leader with true vision” might be preferable to the indecisiveness of group action.  The bitter sweet ending seems to suggest that while it is a good thing that people will get their sight back, the tiny society of the blind and the sighted will be lost and that this is something to be regretted.

Film Still

Film Still

My initial reading of Blindness was a straightforwardly political one.  The political writings of Plato make extensive use of the analogy between the ability to see and the possession of political and moral vision :

“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not”  – Book VII, Republic

Obviously, for Plato, the true pilot is the philosopher and the mutinous crew are the people while the captain is the king or ruling class.  Plato’s point is that, just as you would not entrust a ship to a drunken rabble, you should not entrust your ship of state to the great unwashed.  Plato also compares the ability to see with wisdom and insight through his  Metaphor of the Sun and his (perhaps more famous) Allegory of the Cave.

Because of these kinds of associations, it is easy to see why I read Blindness as a political allegory.  Indeed, aside from the broad beats of the novel discussed above, there are numerous other events that can be seen as political allusions.  For example, the Doctor is a man capable of drawing up systems of governance and dividing up common tasks in an excrutiatingly fair manner but is incapable of making anyone stick to these rules, making him a high-minded but ultimately impotent figure reminiscent of the UN or, in a world other than Plato’s, a political philosopher.  One could also see in the rise and fall of the King of Ward Three a validation of Rousseau’s argument from The Social Contract (1762) that just as men come to rely upon each other more and more, so too do they come to compete with each other.  Had the Doctor’s social contract been accepted by the majority of people then the King would never have risen and peoples desire to compete would have taken a back seat to their need to co-operate.  However, the fact that the sanatorium society is stable and peaceful under both the Doctor’s democracy and the King’s tyranny also seems to support Hobbes’ far more pragmatic line from Leviathan (1651), that some kind of leadership is required and that coexistence is achieved by individuals agreeing to curtail some of their own rights for the good of the group.  Indeed, the willingness of the women to prostitute themselves so that all can be fed supports the idea that a society requires some laws, but it does not really matter which ones they are for the purposes of achieving stability.

The problem with this straightforwardly allegorical reading of Blindness is that it makes the film appear to be an absolute thematic mess.  Rather than making one particular point about the nature of democracy, politics or human nature, Saramago, and the film’s director Fernando Meirelles, seem to be making several incompatible ones about the need for both strong leadership and collective responsibility.

It is difficult to examine a text that includes blindness as a plot device and not immediately see it as some kind of allegory.  Sight and Blindness, like Light and Darkness are such universal symbols in our culture that, once invoked, we immediately assume them to be code for something else.  An excellent example of this is the song ‘Bring Me to Life’ by Evanescence.  The song features the line “all this time I can’t believe I couldn’t see/kept in the dark but you were there in front of me” and the lyrics feature enough references to salvation and being ‘alive inside’ that it could either be about falling in love or becoming a Born-again Christian (indeed, the band started off being marketed as Christian Rock before finding a more mainstream audience).

One might argue that the semantic evasiveness of the film is a recognition of the fact that blindness and sight are now little more than floating signifiers; closed semantic networks that can be applied to pretty much anything from politics to science to mysticism to love without fear of being contradicted.  Much like national flags and the concepts of freedom and democracy, sight and blindness can be invoked by any side of any debate as long as the relative attitudes are preserved : Sight = Good, Blindness = Bad.

If you feed the idea of the floating signifier back into the mixed allegories of the film, you have a film that essentially uses broadly allegorical movements to examine the use of allegory; it is a demonstration of the fact that sight and blindness can be used to justify any political position you can imagine, from communal anarchy to corrupt aristocracy to benevolent dictatorship.  When interpreted in these terms, it makes perfect sense for Blindness to lack a central argument and it makes perfect sense for its characters to be two-dimensional entities without real names.  They are not characters, they are semiotic place-holders, their lack of identity demonstrates the generic nature of the allegories the text plays with.

Unfortunately, film is not a medium that deals terribly well with these types of abstract theoretical ideas.  The characters and stories of film can demonstrate theories and present arguments but because the currency of cinema is people acting on the screen, its subjects must ultimately be anchored in some kind of social reality.  Indeed, the only film that I can think of that is really about these types of theoretical and semiotic issues is Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).  However, Blindness’ is not directed by Andrei Tarkovsky but by Fernando Meirelles.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Having made his breakthrough in 2002 with the excellent City of God, Meirelles then went on to win mainstream acclaim with his 2005 adaptation of John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener (2001).  It is interesting to note that neither of these works is particularly allegorical.  In fact, they are both fairly straightforward dramas that use relationships as the basis for exploring political complexes.  In the case of City of God, the film explored the favela drug trade through the relationships between an aspiring photographer and two beefing drug dealers.  In the case of The Constant Gardener, the relationship between an introverted diplomat and his politically active wife was used as the basis for investigating the idea that Western pharmaceutical companies might be illegally testing their new drugs on poor Africans.  Faced with the allegorical quagmire of Blindness, Meirelles returned to the same methodology that saw him through City of God and The Constant Gardener; he focused upon the relationships between the characters and hoped that they would illuminate the wider ideas.

Film Poster

Film Poster

In essence, Blindness attempts to illustrate a point that does not relate to social reality through the medium of social realism.  This is like trying to explain quadratic equations through the medium of dance.

The blending of big metaphorical ideas and social realism makes Blindness feel like a work of dystopian genre.  In particular, the film feels like a continuation of the ideas explored in H. G. Welles’ short story “The Country of the Blind” (1904) and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (1951).  Both works expend serious energy on speculating about the kind of social structures that would emerge amidst a population that suddenly went blind.  Welles suggests a world where sight would be seen as some kind of hallucination while Wyndham considers the question of how sighted people would reacted to their sudden unspoken responsibility for the blind people around them.  However, compared to these two works, Blindness feels weak as while it touches on both of these issues, neither are explored in any depth.  For example, the book and film have little interest in how the King of Ward Three came to power or how he maintains power over the group.  Nor is it really interested in how the Doctor’s Wife feels about the responsibility placed on her shoulders.  In both cases, the characters exist merely as place-holders in a narrative that works its way through not so much a plot as a series of allegorical dance moves; Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box -> Aristocracy, Democracy, Autocracy.

Book Cover

Book Cover

Simply put, the script and direction of Blindness are not clever enough to carry the point of the book across to the film.  By failing to be clearly allegorical the film comes across as pretentious.  By dwelling on the social realities of the plot, the film veers between the unwatchably harrowing and the nauseatingly saccharine.  By attempting to capture the stylistic and conceptual quirks of the original novel, the film has generic characters and tricksy camera work that make it look as though the director is over-compensating for his struggles with the rest of the film.  However, despite all of its failings, Blindness is undeniably an interesting and ambitious piece of cinema.

By refusing to set the film in a particular place and by refusing to give his characters names Meirelles has shown a real commitment to the source material.  The unpleasantness in the film is conveyed with a stomach churning style comparable to that displayed by Gaspar Noe in Irreversible (2002) and Meirelles’ cinematographic style surfaces time and again as he manages to perfectly capture the cacophony of disembodied voices shouting in the dark that Saramago conveys through his writings’ minimalist approach to punctuation.  Even though Blindness was fatally flawed at a conceptual level before it even started filming, there is still much to appreciate here and it is to Meirelles’ credit that he decided to take on as forbidding a novel as Blindness.  If given a choice between this and his tepid and over-rated The Constant Gardener, I would take Blindness any day of the week.

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