The greatest reward of José Saramago’s masterly novel (original title Ensaio sobre la cegueira) is the overt textual presence of the Portuguese Nobel laureate. Weaving through every companionable paragraph, his savvy authorial voice complements the bold story in which a plague descends on the world and people lose their sight, one by one. Will civilization be saved? Or will we plunge into pitiless darkness? (Actually, Moby-Dick whiteness: Saramago’s non-seeing open their eyes onto milkiness.)
Movie and book are glaringly different. The Fernando Meirelles–directed film is, of necessity, less literary and philosophical. There’s no omniscient writer to frame the story. The narrative stands naked, and it succeeds, or doesn’t, as a fairly-big-star, fairly-big-budget, dystopic sci-fi adventure. For the most part, Meirelles, the talented Brazilian director of City of God [Cidade de Deus] and The Constant Gardener, succeeds. Molding disparate settings in Northern Ontario and São Paulo, he creates a credible metropolis-without-a-name where the odd happenings begin. A man turns blind waiting in his car at a traffic light. In the ensuing days, others also suffer an instant loss of sight. Who next? And why?
The bewildered government trucks away the first batch of blind persons and makes them prisoners in an abandoned hospital. Some are brought low by their blindness: they steal, fornicate, rape, and pillage. But some act unselfishly, dare I say heroically? So Blindness becomes an old-fashioned disaster-movie yarn in which you root for the good guys to walk tall in the land of the unseeing.
The international cast get stuck in functional, two-dimensional roles. Mark Ruffalo has little to do but stumble about (blindly) as a noble ophthalmologist; Brazilian actress Alice Braga has nothing to do but look hot as a good-hearted ex-whore. Danny Glover seems lost. But Don McKellar (who wrote the screenplay) and Gael García Bernal have dandy fun as blind ruffians, and there’s Julianne Moore, luminous as always, as the one human who escapes sightlessness, though why we (and that includes Saramago and Meirelles) never know. 122 minutes | Boston Common + Fenway + Somerville Theatre + Chestnut Hill + Arlington Capitol + Suburbs