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Rated 3.16 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
White Sickness
by Joanne Ross

What would happen if you went blind and saw white instead of the usual darkness? And what if other people in cities throughout the world started going blind as well? Blindness -- based on the superb book by Nobel prize-winning author Jose Saramango -- explores these questions as well as how governments might respond to such a crisis. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, who helmed The Constant Gardener, this film is an allegory about the nature of sight, crises of faith, and what it means to be human.

Downtown in an unnamed city, a young man sitting in his car during rush hour traffic suddenly goes blind -- only he sees white not black. He’s aided by an opportunistic car thief disguised as a Good Samaritan who takes the young man home and then promptly makes off with the man’s car. Eventually the young man’s wife rushes him to a doctor who cannot account for this phenomenon. In short order, the thief, the doctor (Mark Ruffalo), and other people one-by-one succumb to the mysterious white blindness. Only one person seems immune -- the doctor’s wife, played by Julianne Moore.

Convinced an epidemic of an infectious “white sickness” is spreading, the government contains it. Soon military men wearing hazmat garments start rounding up the stricken people to quarantine them in an abandoned sanitarium, recalling the tragic historical events of the Nazi concentration camps and America’s interment of Japanese citizens during World War II. It brings to mind prison camps, psychiatric wards, and asylums --  places where people are corralled, abandoned, stripped of their humanity. The doctor’s wife accompanies her husband to take care of him, and later, every other inmate as well.

It’s hard to avoid the question “If people are plunged into lightness, why can’t they see?” If traditional blindness is the inevitable outcome of the absence of light, then the characters should be able to see, yes? Clearly, Saramago and the director are saying that human “vision” can be obscured or obstructed in the light as well the dark. When I ponder the origin and symptoms of the characters’ malady, I realize the audience can read this movie on more than the literal level because of its rich subtext and symbolism. To me, it's a layered, nuanced work of uncommon power.

In Blindness we witness the gradual disintegration of humanity, as portrayed visually through the waste and feces lining the wards -- and dramatically through the characters played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Maury Chaykin, the self appointed dictators of the  new world order in the wards. Like the bullies they are, both use extortion, humiliation, and rape to hold their place at the top of the human food chain.

Fine performances of the cast -- especially by Moore, Chaykin and Bernal -- impressed me. You won’t find action sequences in Blindness. This film depends upon strong acting with actors whose humanity must rise to the surface, and this perfect cast, which includes Danny Glover, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Yusuki Iseya and Yoshino Kimura, offers us moving and touching performances. 

The movie’s other great character is its untypical soundtrack with original music composed by Marco Antonio Guimaraes and played brilliantly by Uakti. Highly and beautifully mysterious, it comes across as less a score than a soundscape.  Alternately serpentine, predatory, plaintive, despairing, and wondrous, Guimaraes’ piece weaves itself into your head, heart and soul. The persistent percussive line in each of the tracks recalls a heightened breath, the varying rhythms of a heartbeat, a quickened pulse, and the interminable ticking away of the clock, sometimes slow, sometimes fast -- as the minutes pass into hours, hours into days, days into months -- a long slow stumbling into endless whiteness. Guimares has delivered the “sound” of white blindness. Pure magic.

Unfortunately, the film’s momentum breaks down a bit in the middle.  The interminable suffering and day to day existence of the inmates begins to numb the mind a bit. Though the point has been made, the director draws things out a little too long in the ward sequences. However, the hard-to-watch rape scene, an essential part of this movie, is handled well.  The studio, director, and editor were wise to allow it to remain, even though it will probably cost them viewers.

If darkness equates with soul, and lightness with spirit, is this a world in spiritual crisis? Has the population lost its spiritual moorings? Is the dreaded white sickness a scourge to humanity, or does it serve a different purpose? Decide for yourself -- watch Blindness. Your eyes will not believe what they see.

(Released by Miramax Films and rated “R” for violence including sexual assaults, language and sexuality/nudity.)

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