Don’t let its uplifting previews lull you: Every moment of triumph and joy in “Blindness” has to be earned from a film that may rank among the darkest in cinema. If you can’t sit through scenes of — spoiler alert — dogs eating a corpse and a group rape, “Blindness” may be destined for your Netflix queue, the better to mute and fast-forward. But if you enjoy films that crawl down your throat and play jai alai in your stomach, by all means, “Blindness” is for you. It’s just damn hard to watch.
Based on the 1995 novel that preceded Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s Nobel Prize in Literature, “Blindness” takes place in an unnamed city (shot in Sao Paolo, Montevideo and Toronto) populated with nameless characters. A sudden, unexplained epidemic of blindness spreads quickly from a man who goes blind while driving to an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo). Those initially blinded are quarantined and left mostly to fend for themselves in a dingy asylum as the all-whiteout blindness spreads. (“It feels like I’m swimming in milk,” says one of the afflicted.)
The twist: the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore) has admitted herself to the asylum to stick by her husband, concealing the fact that she alone can still see. More patients arrive as, outside, the sickness multiplies.
This is the mousetrap that director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) and screenwriter Don McKellar (“The Red Violin”) have constructed after the novel: part disaster movie, part prison movie, and due to the characters without handle or history, part parable. The doctor’s wife ponders the etymological connection between the words “agnosia” (inability to recognize visual stimulus) and “agnostic,” both cousin to the Greek term for “ignorance.” Yet Meirelles is just as uninterested in explicit allegory as he is with plot twists or gotcha moments. He’d rather see how frail, venal and determined people charter a society of the damned.
As the only sighted inmate, the doctor’s wife is left to shoulder the burden of the dissolving physical and moral conditions inside the asylum. In this transformation, she carries the story. With as little development as the film offers other characters (Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal and a wonderfully despicable Maury Chaykin) Moore has to be brilliant in this regard. Blessedly, she is.
Her evolution has to be enough, because at its core, this is a movie not about specific people, but action, situation and, by definition, sensation. With its bleached palette and frequent dissolves, the film reminds the viewer constantly of the characters’ impairment. The score, spare in quantity and emotion, lets the sounds of the asylum — the chatter of a cane sweeping across a rough floor, the clipped breathing of furtive screwing, a song on the radio — reverberate. The imagination is left to conjure the smells and sounds and tactile sensations that must populate the minds of the characters. The result can be nothing shy of overwhelming, especially when shutting your eyes only draws you further in.