The Blind Cannot Lead The Blind –Blindness, The Movie
Okay. I admit. When I first became aware of Mark Ruffalo was in The Avengers. I fell in love with how he played Dr. Banner/The Hulk character. That movie was released in 2012, and I suspected that Ruffalo had to have started his career long before then. Since then, I search for movies On Demand that he appears in.
On my channel line-up is the Indie movie channel. It is showing a movie titled “Blindness” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore. It was released in 2008 and is categorized as a mystery, drama, and sci-fi movie.
Imagine a city where everyone goes blind – citizens, emergency response personnel, police, military, doctors, scientists, politicians, criminals, etc., and you are the only person with eyesight. Because everyone else is blind, they believe that you are too and you don’t tell them otherwise.
This post is going to be longer than I generally write, but I hope it captures your attention and reads fast because the movie Blindness is intensely symbolic.
Wikipedia describes Blindness as;
“Blindness is a 2008 English-language film, an adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by Portuguese author José Saramago about a society suffering an epidemic of blindness. The film was written by Don McKellar and directed by Fernando Meirelles with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo as the main characters. Saramago originally refused to sell the rights for a film adaptation, but the producers were able to acquire it with the condition that the film would be set in an unnamed and unrecognizable city. Blindness premiered as the opening film at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14, 2008, and the film was released in the United States on October 3, 2008.”
Although I have to address portions of the movie, (spoilers) this is not a movie review, per se. It took me about 2 minutes into the movie to realize that blindness is a metaphor. “Blindness” is about an ineffectual government. Blindness is about how people relate to each other under crisis – or not. Blindness is about disconnection of social structure. Blindness is about people driven by what is just and fair – or not. It’s also about people driven by fear – or not. It’s about placing value on self and others – or not. It’s about the differences between control and power. It’s about self-governance during social collapse.
I’ve only read synopsis about the book “Blindness,” but with art imitating life, I get the impression that Saramago’s written creation is intended as actor Danny Glover describes, “The story deals with something we have to confront, which is our own inability to see what’s going on around us.”
By the time the movie ends, the viewer should understand that there is a difference between “sight,” “seeing,” and “vision”.
None of the characters in this movie have names. The city is unnamed. The year is unknown. What causes the blindness is unknown. How long it lasted is unknown, although we get clues by seeing beards grown, fruit swiveled up, and dead plants, that it lasted over a month.
There are many scenes in this movie that I have not included. Some give more understanding of the personalities of the characters. There is symbolism, such as people rejoicing in the rain as a symbol of baptism into new life. The only person who has eyesight shows her overwhelming emotions as she witnesses the filth and chaos that others cannot see. I was captivated by this film.
Some characters are introduced to us by what they do for a living — policeman, engineer, doctor, pharmacist assistant, etc. Others are introduced by something physical, such as the first character who becomes blind is of Japanese descent who, along with his wife, speak to each other in Japanese. (There are English subtitles for those exchanges.) They do not call each other by name but “Honey”.
Isn’t it like human nature to meet someone for the first time and even if they say their name, once they say their profession, we will remember that and not their name? The world has come to a point of getting to know others based on WHAT they do, rather than WHO they are. Or, is their identity lost in what they do, particularly when how they earn their living is illegal, such as being a thief or prostitute?
The movie begins with the Japanese character suddenly going blind while driving. There’s no progression to becoming blind. It suddenly happens. He is taken home by a car thief. His wife arriving home, takes him to an eye specialist, played by Mark Ruffalo. In the doctor’s office are other patients including a boy around 8 to 10 years old, the man with the eye patch, and a call girl.
The doctor’s wife is played by Julianne Moore. At dinner, he tells her about the patient who went blind. It was not blindness that comes in slowly where darkness stops vision. The patient sees white, describing it as feeling like he is swimming in a sea of milk.
Whomever Wants To Lead Must First Be Servant
We see that the doctor’s wife likes to prepare special recipes, and her husband thinks that maybe she drinks too much wine. As the doctor tells his wife about the patient, she responds that no one goes blind like that. She speaks about such blindness as the result of being agnostic because it and the word agnosia, (the inability to recognize visual stimulus) are cousin to the Greek term for ignorance. After all, one definition of “blindness” is lack of perception, awareness, or judgment; ignorance. But, her husband is an ophthalmologist, and there has to be a scientific reason and cure.
That night, the doctor stays up late researching and asks his wife to set the alarm clock to ring a half hour earlier because he wants to call some specialists. Only the next morning, the doctor awakens blind. He calls the condition “infectious” and wants his wife to stay away from him. However, she states with confidence, “I’m not going to get sick.” I’m pretty sure that there is something in using the word “sick” that we are to understand. We see his wife packing a suit case. Evidently, they presume that he is going to be taken to a hospital because the wife tries to get into the ambulance with her husband. When a man in a hazmat suit tells her she cannot go because she is not blind, she tells him that she just went blind.
“And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” Luke 6:39
Instead of a medical facility with a ward for quarantine, the doctor and his wife are taken to an unoccupied asylum for the mentally ill. When the doctor and his wife arrive, there is no one there. There is no staff. It is a building that sits behind gates with armed guard towers.
They have to decide on settling down in one of three wards, with a guard in a tower using a loud speaker giving them instructions. He tells them that Ward 3 is downstairs. Remember, he does not know that the wife can see, so he believes he is talking to blind people. He is sending blind people into a building without a tour, and that has stairs. The guards’ instructions include that each ward is to select a Ward Captain. (They are expecting more blind people to arrive.) Since the doctor was the first to arrive, he becomes the Ward Captain for Ward 1.
Food will be delivered in boxes and left outside of the main door. There is a phone they can use for emergencies. (The doctor’s cell phone was confiscated by the guys in the hazmat suits.) The wife discovers that the help-line is never answered by a person. She has to leave voice mails.
Meanwhile, the doctor’s office receptionist is approached by men in suits asking for the charts of all the patients who were in the office the day before. There is a Minister of Health who is told about the infectious blindness that takes on the name “white sickness.”
The doctor thinks that 12 people were infected in his office. What he did not know is what any of them did after leaving the office. One infected person entering a bar, a taxi, a hotel, a supermarket, infects everyone else. It appears that the time from infection to blindness is less than 24 hours. Within a matter of days, 90 percent of the population is blind.
Ward 1 fills up quickly. We see the doctor not lose vision of who he is. People depended on him to treat their eyesight and now he has no eyesight of his own. As the movie goes on, we find that his patients still trust him to do the right thing — to give them vision, in spite of having no eyesight.
Back in the asylum, the wife investigates the surroundings. She finds the restrooms down hallways, through doors, and around corners. There is a basin in what looks like a commercial kitchen for washing dishes. There are also picnic like tables in that area. Subsequently, the wife takes cords from machinery and makes a line so that people can follow the lince from area to area.
Ward 3 consists of all men. The Ward Captain for Ward 3 is a bartender who calls himself “King of the Ward” and he has a gun. Before he arrived, the wife got the delivery of food and fairly distributed it. After Ward 3’s Captain arrived, he took delivery of the food. The breakdown of civility soon began.
The guards? As the buses arrive with blind people, they are not given any help to even find the door to the building but are told to walk forward. When people walk the wrong way, even while asking for guidance, the guards shoot them dead. Their bodies are not buried. No one is worried if they have family to be notified.
The wife and doctor take it upon themselves to ask the guards for shovels so they can bury the bodies, and one guard plays a mocking game with the wife. Thinking she is blind, he sends her in the wrong direction for where the shovels are located. The wife eventually loses patience with the game, picks up a shovel, turns to the guard and gives him the finger. When the guard asks his co-worker if he saw that, he says he does not see those type of things.
Well, he had to have seen it in order to categorize it. What he actually conveyed is that he is blind to citizens who show disagreement with the guards’ abuse of people who rely on them.
The wife is a caregiver by nature. Her walking gait changes throughout the movie to show her exhaustion. She is the only person who can see the messes made. Only, no one knows about the work she does because they cannot see it. Her husband, the doctor and Ward 1 Captain, includes the occupants in making decisions, but it’s really his wife who gives him information he needs because she has sight. She’s able to count the number of people; know their gender; how many meals are in a box; the type of food that the boxes contain. She is able to lead them to the basins so they can wash.
Occupants of the other Wards are not so lucky. They do not know where the restrooms are so urinate and defecate in the hallways. They do not know where tables and chairs are, so they eat in those same hallways and leave the trash on the floor, eventually stumbling over it.
In life, when people do not know where to go to do things properly, they can make a mess that they cannot see to clean up. The mess later becomes an obstacle for them.
There is no medical help. There is no custodial staff. There is no one examining the blind in effort to find the cause. No one is running tests or conducting research to find a cure. And, there is no one who knows that the wife has sight other than her husband and subsequently, the call girl.
Without vision, the people perish.
On the outside of the asylum, we see that those suddenly blind call out for help and those with eyesight run from them. They leave them alone without so much as an instruction on what they should do. The infected were sitting among them, and they knew it not until the blind asked for help. Planes crash as pilots go blind. Vehicles crash into each other. Running from problems that effect our fellow man, blinds.
After watching Blindness I read some reviews, many of which took note that there is nudity in the film. The nudity however, is not intended for enticement. Rather, I got the impression that the viewer was expected to put themselves in the position of the characters — WHO CANNOT SEE. It also causes the viewer to think about the reality of those suddenly blind. What if it happened when the person was in the shower? When everyone is blind, no one sees nakedness. It questions self-dignity. There are also scenes of forcible rape so be aware before watching the movie that it contains scenes for adult audiences.
No wonder the characters have no names! As the movie continues, we see where people are stripped of their humanity.
The Captain of Ward 3 steals all of the food and demands that if the other Wards want food, they have to pay. No one has money. He then demands that they give him their jewelry in exchange for food. Ward Captain 3 uses the jewelry to bribe the guards to give him all new deliveries of food that he stockpiles.
Here are blind people giving their jewelry to a blind man who cannot barter the jewelry with anyone other than those who imprisoned him. Blind on blind crime happens right before the guards’ eyes. While they shoot down those who come close to them, they don’t stop to think that the infection might also be on the valuables worn by the blind. Greed, blinds.
On the political front, we see that the asylum represents a ghetto; it represents those who, by no fault of their own, were put in a position of need. Because of the corruption of those representing the government, the occupants are vulnerable to crime. Those suffering the same conditions as those they prey upon do not escape the conditions.
After the occupants of Wards 1 and 2 are stripped of their valuables, the Ward 3 Captain demands that the women exchange sex for food. He has a gun. Bullets have no sight. A blind man pulling the trigger might hit his target, or not. The wife cannot disarm him alone because he is stronger than her. She cannot ask blind people to help because there is no way of communicating with them other than verbally, which would sabotage any plan of ambush to take the gun. Even the doctor considered trying to disarm Ward 3’s Captain, and having no eyesight, felt less than a man. Feeling helpless, blinds.
There’s a scene where one of the women raped is beaten to death. The women bring her body back to Ward 1 and wash it off. The men cannot see the women’s condition. The symbolism in that scene is profound! The dead woman represented them all. All of the women had been violated. They were all emotionally injured. By washing the body of the dead woman, they were washing away the stench, mental and emotional wounds inflicted on them. They refused to carry those things to their graves.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Carl Jung
The wife takes action. She doesn’t tell anyone. She does not need validation. She does not look for their approval. She just does it. The wife takes scissors and she uses them to kill Ward 3’s leader when he forces the women in Ward 2 to exchange sex for food. Ward 3’s Captain has a sidekick, which is a man born blind and has learned skills to function with his disability. When the Captain is killed, the man born blind takes over. Funny. He carried weight to intimidate by being a person born blind with skills, until he realizes that his skills and even the gun, are no match for the wife. The gun is only as good as his aim, and his aiming is based on his enhanced hearing. The wife knows this as the man dares her to speak so he can shoot her. She stands behind a blind man of Ward 3 and speaks. The man born blind shoots one of his Ward mates instead. Now, there are two less men to deal with in Ward 3.
He threatens that the women will not get any more food. The wife responds that every day they go without food, another man in Ward 3 will be killed. That frightens the man, but no one knows that other than the wife who sees his reaction.
The wife discovers that food deliveries have stopped. The only food available is the stockpile in Ward 3. Because they were stealing food, Ward 3 barricaded the entrance to their ward using bed frames and mattresses to prevent others from coming in. They did so again right after their leader was killed. The doctor thinks that Ward 3 will come to wage war on them in retaliation for the killing.
There is one man in Ward 1 who wants to avoid fighting with Ward 3 by turning over the person who killed their leader in exchange for food. PURE IGNORANCE! COWARDICE! How many times do people who operate on fear for their own selfish purpose, tell others what to do when they are ignorant of all the facts? Purely ignorant cowards do not want facts because they want to believe that everyone is the same as themselves — in this case, blind, hungry, helpless and afraid. Ignorance, blinds. Fear, blinds.
The man with the eye patch, played by Danny Glover, quickly comes to the rescue. He says that they have to go to Ward 3 and take the food. The doctor tells them that anyone who doesn’t want to fight should quietly walk out. A woman walks out and goes to Ward 3 with a cigarette lighter. She sets fire to a mattress that is part of the barricade. It was her way of fighting. She didn’t share her plan with anyone. She does not need validation. She didn’t seek approval. She just did it.
Twelve people volunteered to go to Ward 3 and get the food. They refused to be infected/blinded by fear. “I see twelve people” says the wife. People stand with a puzzled look on their face. “What?” Did she just tell us that she can see, or is she in denial of her blindness?
Had the people always known that she could see, there are many different scenarios that are imaginable. Voluntarily servitude comes from the heart. Forced servitude is abusive. Expecting servitude is laziness and taking people for granted. Those who can see when others are blind must pick their battles.
The wife is a leader, but not in the sense of telling others what to do. She is a servant, but not in the sense of taking orders from anyone. She exercises her independence by doing what she can, when she can, and based on necessity.
The army of 12 did not get too far before they smelled smoke. In this case, fire set the captives free. The men of Ward 3 suffer the consequences of their extortion and rape while the wife leads people out of the burning building. Once in the courtyard and to prevent the guards from shooting, the wife screams to the guards if they see what is going on – but she is met by silence. Electricity had gone off that same evening. There were no lights on outside of the compound. We can conclude that even those operating the utilities and the guards who took bribes and killed to protect themselves from being infected, have also gone blind. The white sickness had infected even those who killed trying to avoid it. It put everyone on the same playing field.
Walking to the gate and opening it, the wife walks out of the facility grounds into the darkness of night and shouts that they are free. Without the fire, the wife would not have discovered that they were free. Without the fire, those of Ward 1 would have risked their lives going into Ward 3. Without the fire, the occupants would have starved to death. Without the fire, the blind rapists would have continued exploiting and raping. Fire purifies.
Here, we have hundreds of people with no eyesight who were brought to the asylum blind. Leaving its confines, they did not know their way home. It’s not that these people were without homes, jobs, family and friends. Their blindness prevents them from finding their way back home. That is true for many of the people in the city who went blind in places other than their homes.
This is no small, rural town. It’s a large urban city with bridges and overpasses. The residential buildings have balconies. Imagine not being able to see when your next step could be your last.
There is something else that this movie shows over and over, which is when people are moving in a group but somehow become detached, they don’t call out. They start reaching out with their hands instead to see if there is anything or anyone around them. Communication among mankind suffers. The lack of communication disconnects people, and those disconnected from a person with vision find themselves feeling their way through life, never really knowing where they are.
If everyone takes an eye for an eye, the whole world will be blind.
People are in the streets scavenging for food, some moving along in groups and some alone. There is a man who apparently fell down steps and broke his neck and died, because dogs eat his corpse. (There are other bodies at the bottom of the stairs as well.) One dog however, by-passes the pack and sniffs his way to the wife. From that moment forth, the dog follows the wife.
An interesting scene is in the supermarket. Blind people are stumbling and walking into each other, with loads of packages of food on the floor that they have knocked off shelves. Habit. The people could neither see what was on the shelves but preferred the shelves while stumbling over packages of food that fell on the floor.
The group from Ward 1, which has now been reduced from 34 to 7, (including the wife), go to the home of the doctor and his wife where they are able to bathe in the pouring rain and eat. They speak of being a family – a family with the only known person with sight and vision. Home is not just a place to function, but a place of belonging.
Just as we begin wondering how the movie ends, we see a repeat action. In the beginning of the movie when the doctor awakens blind, the wife is pouring coffee. We see this again as the first man who became blind sits as the wife pours him a cup of coffee. He says, “I need to wake up.” His eyesight returns. The group rejoices that sight has returned to the one because it means that the disease might have run its course.
Good books and good movies leave us with what if questions. Since there is no clinical reason for the blindness, will the white sickness return? One thing for sure is, if the disease does return, the people will know it makes no sense to be removed from their homes for quarantine. It makes no sense to be placed in an environment where the only presence of government involvement is armed guards.
Yes, this movie can be hard to watch at times. There are times in the movie when Meirelles, the director, wants viewers to see what the characters see. At times, the screen is all white. After the wife leads the blind out of the asylum and she goes into the storage area of a supermarket to look for food, the screen is all black. She lights a match. Those with vision can be in a dark place, but they can feel for a source of light to reveal what is in the dark.
José Saramago, the author of the book in which the movie is based, followed up on Blindness with another book titled Seeing. It picks up four years after the “white sickness” and starts with elections taking place. The government has ordered that no one speak about the white sickness. While Blindness focused on people, Seeing focuses on politicians. Saramago brings back some of the characters from Blindness, including the wife, the dog, and the doctor. It shows us more about the character of the first man that went blind.
Sadly, we won’t get another sequel. The Nobel Prize winning Jose Saramago passed in June 2010 at the age of 87.
Inside us there is something that has no name; that something is what we are. Jose Saramago