When the Thin Veneer of Society Tears

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Title: Blindness

Rating: 4 Stars

Many years ago, I saw that a Portuguese novelist named Jose Saramango had won the Nobel prize for literature. Just out of curiosity, I went down and picked up one of his novels. It was called Blindness.

I was poking around Amazon Instant Video and I saw that it had been made into a film some years ago, starring Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore. This piqued my interest because this seemed to be a somewhat esoteric novel to be made into a film.

I read some of the back story, which itself is interesting. Saramango was not interested in optioning his novel. He only did so when they promised that the setting for the movie would be some indeterminate city or country.

The film was very true to the novel. The premise is that one person, driving a car, sitting at a stoplight, instantly becomes blind. Several people help him, he manages to get to an ophthalmologist, but it cannot be diagnosed. Shortly thereafter, all of the people that he comes into contact with have also become blind.

The authoritarian government steps in quickly and tries to isolate the problem by quarantining the infected by throwing them into some run-down, slightly broken down barracks. Everyone in the barracks is blind, except for the eye doctor’s wife, who pretends to be blind because she cannot bear to be separated from her husband. They agree to keep the fact that she can see secret from everyone.

At first, the blind organize themselves (under the doctor’s leadership). Soon there are just too many people and the place turns to squalor, with filth and feces on the floor. The doctor’s wife is exhausted trying to secretly keep everything together and begins to break down.

Eventually, one of the wards in the barracks tries to take over. They are all violent men, one has a gun, and one has special talents because he was always blind, so he is uniquely skilled in this environment. The barracks descend into rape, murder, and ultimately an arson where the barracks burns down with most inside.

The doctor’s wife leads a small group outside and determines that the government guards have abandoned their posts. They venture out into the world where the city is desolate now that everyone is blind. There are small groups of people aimlessly walking around, stealing from each other. The doctor’s wife manages to find some food behind a locked door and leads her group to their old house.

The next morning, the first victim regains his eyesight. There is hope again.

There were a couple of major themes. One of course is the Lord of the Flies nature of the barracks. The implication is that once social order breaks down, it breaks down into strong man rule and/or anarchy. The doctor, representing science and reason, becomes powerless.

The second major theme is between the doctor and his wife. The doctor is a hyper competent, highly confident individual. When he first loses his vision, he still tries to assume that role. Over time, the wife has to take on more and more responsibility and the doctor, much to his discomfort, becomes more and more dependent upon her. This switch affects both of their personalities.

A third theme is the freedom of blindness. With blindness, there is no judgment based upon physical characteristics. One of the more touching scenes is a young prostitute falling in love with an elderly gentlemen (Danny Glover). The fact that there is such a huge age difference, that they are different races, or even that the woman is clearly healthier is not really relevant because they can share their spirits. On the morning after they start regaining their sights, one of the last scenes is the old man, sitting on the couch, sadly saying nothing, knowing that the wonderful thing that he was experiencing was going to come to an end.

I find it fascinating that the budget for this movie was $25 million. My understanding (which admittedly is very vague) is that a movie needs to gross twice that much to eke out a profit. It’s hard to see how such a somewhat grim dystopian novel by a Portuguese author could ever clear that hurdle. I’m interested in the mechanics of the green light process. Was this a vanity project for someone on the promise of being involved with a more bankable movie?

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