Julianne Moore is a star for these terrible times. She tends to be at her best when the world is at its worst. And things are pretty bad in "Blindness," a perversely enjoyable, occasionally harrowing adaptation of José Saramago's 1995 disaster allegory.
A mysterious epidemic called the white sickness has left an entire city sightless, except her. But to remain with her optometrist husband (Mark Ruffalo) after the government quarantines the afflicted in an asylum, Moore pretends to be blind. The couple winds up in a clan alongside Ruffalo's patients, played by Danny Glover, Yusuke Iseya, Alice Braga, Mitchell Nye, and Yoshino Kimura.
The early scenes of them all falling over one another and feeling their way along corridor walls suggests a particularly apocalyptic drama-class exercise: OK, now you're blind zombies. Don McKellar's screenplay holds onto a few of Saramago's other devices that should keep it from working. We don't know what city this is (it looks like Tokyo, Montreal, Sao Paolo, and Los Angeles combined into one), and the characters do not have names.
But the lack of specificity and the comic pantomime start to matter less when the movie's ideas begin to assert themselves. The asylum inmates are broken into wards, one of which controls the distribution of provisions. It's run by Gael Garcia Bernal and the Falstaffian Maury Chaykin, who make a perfectly reprehensible pair, first demanding jewelry for food, then sex.
For the first half hour, as all hell only threatens to break loose, the people we meet are designer characters with expensive clothes and chic apartments; even Alice Braga's hooker is untouchably cool. I worried that the director Fernando Meirelles was creating another of his glamorous nightmares, like "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener." But "Blindness" corrals its bourgeois characters into slummy conditions not to improve their humanity, but to test it. Does pride matter in poverty and starvation and degrading terror? There's nothing left for even Meirelles to glamorize.
This is not to say that his filmmaking doesn't reach an arrestingly grim peak, particularly before, during, and after the women in Moore's ward hold hands and walk toward the men who've promised them food for their bodies. These sequences are dark and chaotic in a way that makes it impossible for anyone (us or the characters) to come out of the dreadfulness unscathed.
The chaos Meirelles conjures is indeed living-dead movie stuff, but the desperation is still shockingly real. So, for that matter, is the sanitation problem. The production designer Tule Peak and his crew have done a marvelous job, giving us a stupefyingly trashed city, as if the disaster were actually a garbage bomb.
"Blindness" is a movie whose sense of crisis feels right on time, even if the happy ending feels like a gratuitous emotional bailout. Meirelles ensures that the obviousness of the symbolism (in the global village the blind need guidance!) doesn't negate the story's power, nor the power of Moore's performance. The more dehumanizing things get, the fiercer she becomes.
In another sort of movie, this would be a job for Sigourney Weaver, but Moore is just as fearsome. Actually, with that pellucid skin and those innumerable freckles, the actor reminded me of Isabelle Huppert, who also supervised post-apocalyptic survival in director Michael Haneke's sadly underseen parable "Time of the Wolf."
Could these two have been separated at birth, with Moore opting for melodramatic anxiety and Huppert for improbable serenity? The sightless folks in "Blindness" have an imperious captain in Julianne Moore. When someone calls her a leader with vision, it's a hokey joke, and yet nobody's kidding.