Fernando Meirelles directed one of the best movies of the past ten years: City of God, which takes place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Because the depth and impossibility of the poverty is something that most of us in this country are unfamiliar with, it feels like an apocalyptic parable. It feels like the end of the world, and I am not prepared for it.
Blindness, also directed by Meirelles, is more literally about the end of the world as we know it. A disease, or a plague, of blindness overtakes a modern city. It takes rich and poor, good and bad. It spreads like a virus and eventually appears to take everyone. It is not the ordinary blindness of being plunged into blackness. As one character says, “I feel like I’m swimming in milk.” You see white, the presence of light, rather than black, the absence of light. People who are stricken are quarantined to prevent the spread.
In most movies or stories about a plague or disease the focus is on the people who are trying to cure or stop the spread of the disease; the drama is in the detective work to find the reason for it. In Blindness, the focus is solely on the victims, those whose sight has been lost, or taken. And these people are more prisoners than patients. To protect the outside world, they are denied access to it. If they come too close to a guard, they are shot. Food is brought to them in limited supply by a mysterious truck. They must form their own colonies, tribes, and develop their own organizations to govern themselves. They are metaphorically starting over from scratch, except that they are blind. All except one.
Most apocalyptic pictures are about the action and carnage and monsters. Blindness is not that. There is carnal violence, but it is minimal. More terrifying is the social violence in the power struggle between the two wards; Meirelles makes you feel viscerally what it would be like to suddenly, inexplicably go blind and become helpless in that way. For periods of time the camera sees what the blind see and the screen is milky white with shadows moving through it. It becomes so bright at times that you have to turn away from the screen and blind yourself to the action. As the film goes on it feels as though all color is bled from the images. The acting, the way the camera moves and the editing all service the documentary style that is so prevalent in apocalyptic stories. It is compelling to watch. And exhausting.
The strength of the film is in the way the people come together and work to take care of each other. Strangers, bonded by a terrible circumstance, become dependent on each other, discover each other and grow together, becoming the equivalent of a family or a tribe. The modern parable is that these tribes are unable to coexist. The male-dominant tribe seeks authority over the other more “civilized” tribe, and violence is the only negotiation. But in the end, when the blind and the city have been totally abandoned, there exists a kind of individual peace and safety and there is hope.
Any apocalyptic story is an allegory in some way. It is Cassandra screaming the future from the screen in the voice of the present. Blindness is a whisper in the darkness of the horrible inevitability of helplessness and the absolute necessity of unity. It is difficult to sit through but worth it.
And now for something totally different:
MONSTER VS. ALIENS
I have a 14-year-old son, so for about 14 years, whenever I’ve gone to the movies, I’ve seen little besides animated films or films that star animals. Most of the time I have been very happy to do so. Wall-E was the best film made last year. Then again, I watch most of the films I write about on DVDs and plasma televisions, so it probably colors my judgment that I saw Wall-E on a big screen with a crowd of kids and parents.
For a time. A little more than half way through it became just another comic book movie. The effects were good, but they were just effects. The kids still liked it, but whereas Toy Story, Wall-E and even Ice Age carried me through to the end, this one lost me. Maybe I’m growing up but I sorely wanted to see Slumdog Millionaire again.