It’s easy to frame Blindness as a parable about AIDS, terrorism, or any number of things that make us fear each other, but such a reading is probably too reductive. The characters in Blindness show kindness to each other as well as cruelty, setting aside some of their prejudices while reinforcing others. The film takes viewers to some very dark places, forcing us to examine what constitutes human dignity and what we’re willing to do simply to survive.
Set in a time that looks like the present, in an unnamed, modern-looking but unfamiliar metropolis, the film opens at the beginning of an epidemic of blindness-a sudden and complete loss of vision that causes people to see white, rather than the blackness those with sight associate with blindness. Not realizing the “white sickness” is communicable, an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) who treats one of the first victims unwittingly spreads the condition to all the patients in his waiting room-and wakes up blind himself the next day. The doctor and several other early victims of the epidemic are confined by the government to an abandoned mental hospital, with food brought in, armed guards posted, and no contact with the outside world permitted. The inmates-whose names we never learn-get their bearings with help from the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), who insisted on joining him in quarantine but inexplicably retains her vision. As more and more inmates join them, though, conditions deteriorate into violence, extortion, and filth. Once they manage to escape, even the idea of making their way home gets confusing as it becomes clear that the entire society has broken down.
The film purposefully keeps us at an emotional remove from the characters even as it depicts their suffering. But Alice Braga shows appealing complexity as a sexy tough girl who becomes a maternal surrogate for a young boy. Ruffalo seems a bit miscast in a role of quiet authority, but Moore is powerful, capturing both the strength and vulnerability of her character, nearly cracking under the burden of responsibility she feels as the one person who can see.