"Blindness" is an apocalypse movie for sophisticates; it'll work for you if you're more comfortable name-checking Camus' "The Plague" than "28 Days Later." It's clearly intended as a prestige production, with Fernando Meirelles ("City of God," "The Constant Gardener") directing a cast including indie royalty Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, and European star Gael Garcia Bernal.
The film opens amid scenes of urban affluence and activity that begin to break down when a random motorist loses his vision, bringing traffic to a halt. Soon the city - unnamed, like the cast of characters, so as to feel more universal, more symbolic - is overwhelmed with what the story terms "the white sickness." It doesn't take long for the idea to take focus: The loss of vision connotes the aimless materialism of the characters' empty lives. Call it "Night of the Overworked Metaphor."
"Blindness," adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, reportedly was drastically re-edited after its unfavorable debut at the Cannes Film Festival. Whatever the virtues of the source material, the film is a shambles. It has no dramatic trajectory, just a beginning, a muddle, and an end.
What begins as a curiosity in the office of a good-hearted ophthalmologist (Ruffalo) spreads rapidly, throwing the city into hysteria. The doctor's wife (Moore), mysteriously unaffected by the disease, comforts him when he succumbs, and when a biohazard team packs him off to quarantine, she declares that she's blind, too, and accompanies him as a seeing-eye companion. The afflicted are herded into a derelict building and live in concentration-camp conditions, with armed guards at the perimeter. Soon each group of victims is at war with the others until the ruthless King of Ward Three (Bernal) seizes power and demands increasingly harsh sacrifices from the rest.
Meirelles doesn't focus the script's themes, and he lets the actors emote as if this horror show were Greek tragedy. He's visually creative, to be sure, deploying an armada of photographic gimmicks, mirroring characters on reflective surfaces, burring them in pools of milky light, even making some objects invisible until the players bump into them, then popping the items in place.
But the tone is so funereal - except for one sick joke by Bernal, karaoke-serenading the prisoners on the building's PA system - that the film is an ordeal. Moore's infinitely expressive face is in stricken mode as her character suffers ugly indignities for 80 percent of the film's running time.
When the resolution arrives, it feels like the lifting of a magic spell rather than a conclusion that was dramatically earned. The film doesn't end, it stops. And not a minute too soon.