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Scientists and doctors are constantly trying to predict the next plague-like epidemic. It will infect and spread quickly, be impossible to cure immediately, and will cause the utter ruin and decay of society. But what if the epidemic, the doom of civilization, takes away not our bodies, but the sense we lean on most?

Welcome to the premise of Blindness, the newest film by Fernando Meirelles, the director of such acclaimed films as City of God (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005). It opens with the sudden blindness of a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya). He manages to make it home due to the false generosity of the stranger Thief (Don McKellar) who steals the blind man’s car. The First Blind Man’s Wife (Yoshino Kimura) takes him to the Doctor (Mark Ruffalo). Predictably, those who come into contact with the First Blind Man (as he is billed) soon become blind themselves – sometimes after a few days, after physical activity (the Woman with Dark Glasses (Alice Braga) goes blind after having sex), or after sleeping – and they in turn infect scores more.

Quickly responding to increasing cases of infectious blindness, dubbed “white sickness,” the government rounds up victims and places them in a quarantine facility where they are told they will be taken care of and hopefully cured. The Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore) feigns blindness so that she will be able to go with the Doctor, her husband. Once they arrive with other quarantine victims, which include the First Blind Man, the Woman with Dark Glasses, and the Thief. Deciding to keep her immunity to the disease a secret, the Doctor’s Wife becomes the somewhat silent caretaker of the entire ward, which grows to numbers that overwhelm her.

Blindness is a tricky film. On the one hand, it’s very much about the inevitable breakdown of society that is not built to withstand catastrophic loss of any kind. There is a very frightening realism to how quickly the world around the characters disintegrates. On the other hand, it’s a prison experiment with good and deviant people alike, thrown into a prison and forced to survive – and the blindness serves as a unifier, not a twist. Honorable men, or at least those who had been kept in check by the order of the outside world, become chaotic and avaricious. When the Bartender/King of Ward Three decides to stockpile the food and make the people in the other wards pay for it with whatever they can (at first it’s just jewelry, but when the trinkets run out, the request is replaced by something altogether more sinister), the audience finally sees a breaking of will that could never have been caused by the blindness alone.

The film’s attempt to recreate a Babel-esque environment is superficial, but somewhat convincing. There’s a sense of disorientation from the unrecognizable and unnamed locales, the characters without actual names, and the different languages (the First Blind Man and his wife are both bilingual), accents (the King of Ward Three has a distinct Hispanic accent), and ethnicities (the Minister of Health (Sandra Oh) is Asian, and there are various men and women of African and Middle-Eastern descent in the midst of a seemingly mostly white cast) – though these make it seem more like Big City, USA, than something more random.

Yet nothing drives home the feeling of disorientation more than the white sickness itself.  It would be naive to say that there is no significance that the sickness is not actually blindness, but a blinding and drowning out of color by a constant sea of white.  The religious tones of the color (or lack of it) as a purifier come through strongly, as only those strongest enough to cling to their humanity are the ones who truly survive in tact.  The white sickness is more than a disabler or a unifier: it is a destroyer of the fragility in humans and a wrecker of the illusion of dignity and pride.  It becomes the cleanser that the characters never quite realize or vocalize.  It is a monochromatic Great Flood, leaving only a few behind to start over.

Probably most disappointing is Julianne Moore’s lead. It’s certainly not that she isn’t capable, but her portrayal of the Doctor’s Wife seems less commanding than some of her previous ventures (2006’s Children of Men comes to mind). Her strongest moments are those when her character is on the brink of utter exhaustion. Indeed, what should have been the most dynamic character in the movie – the only one who can actually witness the destruction of the world around her – seems to plateau less than thirty minutes into the film. As a contrast, Mark Ruffalo’s Doctor begins as the safe wealthy ophthalmologist who is utterly truncated by his inability to see, both physically and mentally, and becomes bitter, then angry, and, finally, somewhat redeemed. Probably the oddest actor in the film is Danny Glover as the Man with the Black Eye Patch. Far removed from his quintessential rough cop role, he speaks softly and is more of a wise voice than an actual character, as he remains underdeveloped throughout the film.

Blindness’s washed-out look does a lot for its atmosphere, but it can’t save the film from tripping on its attempt to achieve some sort of message about disgrace and redemption. While the cast is solid and the emotion comes through, Moore’s performance is too close to a flatline and does the film a disservice. The movie’s other problems (a bit of pacing here and there and the uninspiring motivations of some of the characters) drag it down further, but it is manages to be a provocative and somber worthwhile movie.