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As far descents into hell go, Fernando Meirelles' Blindness sure is stylized. Awash in blurs, whiteouts, shadows and unbalanced compositions, his apocalyptic view of humanity at its worst is an endurance test of frightening disability. If you've got a hankering for something that captures the cultural zeitgeist of post-9/11 paranoia, financial uncertainty and total public chaos, then look no further.

Taken from José Saramago's allegorical novel, the film imagines the end of civilization as caused by an epidemic outbreak of blindness. Set in an unnamed city, the opening starts promisingly enough as we watch the illness spread from a Japanese businessman to a thief to a physician to everyone in his office and on and on. Before long the authorities round up the infected urbanites and quarantine them in a dingy prison-like facility. Then the real "fun" begins. An ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo), his wife (Julianne Moore), a call girl (Alicia Braga), a one-eyed Danny Glover and a vicious thug (Gael García Bernal) are tossed in with dozens of other sightless character actors. None of them are given names and all of them discover that the outside world has abandoned them to their own devices. The crux is that Moore, unaffected by the disease but determined to stay by her husband's side, can see. Unfortunately, she can't stop things from descending into Lord of the Flies-style brutality, as the family of man shows its true miserable colors.

Blindness spares the audience nothing as garbage and human waste pile up in the hallways and its Hollywood actors shun makeup and hair products. Food is stolen and stragglers are shot, as might-makes-right anarchy settles in. It all culminates in an obscured and horrifying orgy of rape that tests the boundaries of cinematic taste.

Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), using off-kilter camera angles, quick edits and an ever-changing focus, does a good job of conveying the growing madness, but his now-you-see-it, now-you-don't style of filmmaking is all style over substance. His art school techniques are detached from any real social message, and, unlike the best horror or suspense directors, he never confronts or examines the audience's voyeurism. Ultimately, we're never sure if Meirelles believes our sight is a blessing or a curse.

The allegorical underpinnings in Blindness also barely resonate. Parables tend to be better suited to novels because their characters are stand-ins for the nuances of human nature. Except in the most skillful of hands, film is too literal a medium, uncomfortable with blatant metaphors. Julianne Moore, though her unnamed "doctor's wife" may represent a specific truth about humanity, will only ever be Julianne Moore — no matter how fine her performance. Without subtext or poetic license, she's merely a long-suffering and unknowable saint. This both undermines and diminishes the point of Saramago's novel. There is no sweep or greater truth, just the miserable experiences of two-dimensional characters.

Still, despite its dreary and earnest stoicism, Blindness is absorbing at times, offering a crude but effective metaphor for modern human isolation. It's an opportunity to reflect on the inevitable failings of humanity when faced with real-life disaster — and the hope that decency will win out.

However, unlike Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, which understood that it was an action film first and parable second, Meirelles is far too proud of his limited conclusions. Blindness revels in its despairing seriousness and didactic tone and, um, lacks any real vision.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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