'Blindness': Lost In Light, By Kurt Loder

Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo stand out in a movie that doesn't.

Stopped at a light on a busy street in an unnamed city, a motorist raises his hands to his eyes in panic. He has suddenly gone blind. So has a high-end call girl in the midst of servicing a client in a luxury hotel. A little boy succumbs, and a thief, and, with pointed irony, an ophthalmologist, too. As the strange plague spreads, government operatives in hazmat gear begin rounding up its victims and transporting them to a grim contamination facility where they grope about in sightless confusion, their behavior devolving from supportive warmth to self-serving indifference to icy predation. They're terrified by whatever it is that's happening to them; we in the audience are merely puzzled.

"Blindness," the new movie by the Brazilian director (""), is like an earnest lesson plan with only the most familiar lessons to impart. The film is based on a 1995 novel by the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, but those who haven't read the book may be put in mind of more familiar sources, from "Lord of the Flies" to "The Road Warrior" and even "Night of the Living Dead." Mereilles and his regular cinematographer, César Charlone, have created a dark, savage style for the picture, interspersed with bursts of limpid beauty (the blindness plunges its victims not into the dark, but into a realm of milky whiteness: "It's like someone turned the lights on," one character says). But the director adds little that's new to the tradition of dystopian art; and his film also raises key questions for which no answers are supplied. This may have worked in print (I haven't read Saramago's book), but it doesn't play especially well as a movie.

What "Blindness" does have going for it is a fine cast. , as the eye doctor (none of the characters have actual names), is a man committed to the standards of civilized society, and quietly appalled by their disintegration all around him and his helpless marginalization by rising forces of barbarism. , as his wife, is extraordinarily affecting in her empathy, frustration and, finally, explosive rage. And Gael García Bernal ("Babel") is exceptionally unpleasant as a rabid mini-despot who seizes control of the facility's food supply and begins rationing it out in return for valuables, first, and then sex. (The scene in which a group of women is forced to submit to his demands is deliriously hellish.)

But Moore's character hasn't lost her sight — she's only come along to tend to her husband. (The scene in which the doctor, lost in blindness, tells her, "I miss you so much," provides one of the film's most touching moments.) Why has she alone been spared the ravages of the plague? And since she is the only person in the place who can see, why has she not been able to seize a greater degree of power herself? Bernal's character, a bartender by trade, enforces his appalling whims with a pistol he's brought along — but did he also bring with him a case of ammunition to maintain his control? (Another question: How does he determine where to aim?) As for what caused the plague in the first place, don't ask — the movie's not telling.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Flash of Genius and "Rachel Getting Marriedalso new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Blindness."

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