In an introduction to Dekalog, Stanley Kubrick once wrote of the great Krzysztof Kieśloswki and his writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiwicz, "[T]hey have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told." He also referred to Dekalog as the only film masterpiece produced during his own lifetime.

One wonders what Kubrick might have thought about Blindness, a movie rotten with the fear that the audience might possibly miss the point if the filmmakers don't hammer us over the head repeatedly, about as far removed as it is possible to be from "dramatiz[ing] their ideas rather than just talking about them." I've never read the extremely well-regarded source novel by Portuguese author José Saramago, but the film that resulted from that novel's collision with screenwriter Don McKellan and director Fernando Meirelles is one of the most perfect arguments in recent years for the proposition that books and movies are fundamentally different media. What wins Nobel Prizes in print form is what draws loud jeers at Cannes in cinematic form, and as it turns out, those jeers were entirely deserved.

Blindness is a fable about the cruelty of mankind, revealed when an epic of "the white sickness", a contagious, instantaneous blindness, strikes the population of an unnamed Everycity. The plot follows a quarantined community of the afflicted into standard-issue Lord of the Flies territory, with a twist; there is one sighted woman in this blind society, who lied about her health to follow her husband, an optometrist, into the quarantined sanitarium, and who continues to lie so that she might help the afflicted. She is so entirely selfless that we figure out before too long that the blindness of the title isn't just literal, it's also suggestive of the moral blindness that turns men into thugs, rapists and thieves. See, she's not morally blind, that's why she has vision. Moral vision. And if I had wanted to be as subtle about that as the film is, then I would have typed it like this:

Morally Blind

There is a primary, overpowering fatal flaw with this film, itself not lacking for flaws: not a single one of the characters is given a proper name, but all are credited according to their profession. This is an easy and neat thing to carry off in literature, which unfurls entirely in the reader's mind, and its obvious function there would be to suggest the story's universality. When you put that same concept on film, though... Look, film is by its nature representational. A canny director can figure out all sorts of ways to get around that fact with things like Surrealism, animation, or chemical processes, but at the end of the day the very concept of the art form is that you're going to have people or things in front of a camera lens, and their image is going to be recorded on celluloid or as a digital file. So instead of having "the doctor's wife", a Platonic concept, we have "Julianne Moore as The Doctor's Wife", and although I adore Moore & find her performance to be the closest thing to a saving grace anywhere in Blindness, still by virtue of existing as a flesh and blood human, she's not a Platonic concept; she makes the doctor's wife into a very real person who ceases to seem (as I expect she would in the book) a metaphorical object. Maybe, possibly, doubtfully, this could have worked with an entire cast of unknowns. But with Moore, Danny Glover, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael García Bernal in tow (among less-famous but still recognisable character actors), there's no hope for it; I can't possibly be the only viewer who, for convenience's sake, began to subconsciously refer to the characters as Julia, Mark, Gael...

Basically, when you take that gigantic, stylised step of depriving your characters of names, you have as much as announced, in flaming letters written in the sky, "Here is an Allegory." And you guarantee absolutely that instead of "making your points through the dramatic action of the story", you're just going to sock the audience with a shrill harangue.

Meirelles is a director for whom I've previously felt nothing but the greatest admiration: his breakthrough feature City of God is among the best films I've seen this decade, and his follow-up and English-language debut, The Constant Gardener, is a top-shelf spy thriller. In both of those films, the director was aided in no small way by the great cinematographer César Charlone, who's on board yet again for Blindness; except that now he's been reduced to a performing circus dog for a director whose approach to the material is just as ham-fisted as the screenplay. Charlone's work is technically without flaw, and by no means "easy", but he's stuck with Meirelles's clumsy ideas, which include the repeated - and repeated - and repeated - trick of fading to white and showing blurry silhouettes in front of a strong white backlight to indicate "blindness". Not inherently a bad idea, but used inconsistently, and it doesn't even make sense for a film whose plot requires that our POV should be aligned with the doctor's wife, the only person in the film who can actually see the things we're seeing.

The one saving grace - other than Moore, of course, who brings unthinkable levels of gravity to a brazenly impersonal character - is that, at the very least, Meirelles has a pretty decent eye for what an apocalypse should look like. Some critics complain about the overbearing levels of filth and violence in the sanitarium; some complain that it's not overbearing enough; me, I think it's close to just right, although if Meirelles was going to be such a chickenshit as to film the notorious group-rape scene in almost complete shadow, he might as well have just cut it entirely. Better still, when the film ultimately leaves the quarantined zone to show what the rest of the city looks like in the anarchy of the blind, Meirelles shoots the masses of humanity curled up in trash, scrounging through the ruins of stores for scraps of food, in a manner that recalls 28 Days Later.

Other than that, it's all overbearing, sometimes unpleasant, and often irritating in its lecturing, and if this is what the film looks like post-tinkering (and that tinkering is sometimes very obvious in the editing; it sometimes feels like a student filmmaker trying to hide the fact that there wasn't enough coverage shot), I can only imagine what the cut that premiered to catcalls at the Cannes Film Fest must have looked at. Because what we've got in general release right now is a tremendously disappointing example of all the things that can go wrong with self-conscious art films.