The blindness comes like a thief in the bright—without warning, without prelude.
It begins with one man, sitting at a traffic light. One minute, he’s fine. The next, his sight’s engulfed in brilliant whiteness. Motorists honk, but he can’t see to drive. Eventually another man offers to take him home.
A Good Samaritan? Hardly. He steals the blind man’s car. That evening, however, he too is rendered suddenly sightless. And so begins the blindness, a disease so contagious that, seemingly, it can be spread with a glance.
To a pharmacist. A call girl. A child.
An eye doctor is an early casualty. The morning after examining the first blind man, he too has lost his sight. His wife tells him not to worry, and they call officials from this unnamed city in an unnamed land. Soon, people wearing hazmat suits arrive, push him aboard a high-security ambulance and prepare to whisk him away to one of the government’s hastily opened quarantine centers—prisons, essentially—for the newly blind. Before they drive away, the doctor’s wife pushes her way on board.
“I’ve just gone blind,” she lies.
She maintains the lie for days, then weeks. Every day she opens her eyes and sees the ceiling—a miracle in this land of non-seeing. She helps her husband and the other victims get around. Together they construct a semblance of society within Ward One, their sight-forsaken home.
But she can’t do it all, and there’s a lot to be done.
No one from the outside dares set foot in the place. The center grows filthy. Tiny, treatable injuries fester into life-threatening illnesses. Food is left outside the door. The center grows more crowded … and less civilized. Before long, it fractures into tiny ward-based fiefdoms—one of which is ruled by a gun-toting former bartender who calls himself King of Ward Three.
Ward Three soon takes over the center’s food supply and demands that the other wards pay for their vittles. When cash and jewelry run out, the king comes up with another method of payment.
“Bring us your women,” he says. “Woman for food. Have a good day.”
The doctor’s wife has up to this point used her sight as a subtle, secret agent of change. She’s become a surrogate mother to dozens of lost and needy souls. But now, it seems, she’s facing a different sort of challenge: Will she use her sight as a weapon? Will she go to war against the unspeakable injustice she alone can see clearly?
[It’s impossible to discuss this film’s content without spoiling certain plot twists. So this review occasionally does so.]
The disease brings out the best and worst in people. While Ward Three devolves into a wasteland, Ward One becomes a family of sorts. We never learn names, but the folks there obviously care about each other. “I know the part inside of you with no name,” one man tells a former call girl. Indeed, the call girl undergoes the film’s most startling transformation—from a snooty prostitute to a loving surrogate mom for the ward’s youngest inhabitant. For the folks we follow most closely in the film, blindness becomes an unexpected blessing.
For her part, the doctor’s wife never asked for the responsibilities that go with her gift of sight. And, as such, she’s slow to embrace them. At first she devotes her attention to her husband, feeding him, cleaning him, walking him around. But slowly, she takes the rest of Ward One under her wing. While her husband becomes, at least on the surface, the ward’s leader and spokesman, she works in the background, walking people to the restroom and helping them navigate the center’s hallways.
The dramatic conflict between Ward Three and Ward One transforms the doctor’s wife from a mostly passive onlooker to a fiercely protective mama bear, willing to go to any length to protect those entrusted to her. [Sometimes, it could be argued, she goes too far. More on that in “Sexual” and “Violent Content.”] When the members of her ward eventually escape from quarantine, she stays true to that role—leading them across the city like a line of baby ducks until they find food, shelter and a bit of peace.
The doctor’s wife and her gaggle of dependents stumble inside a church, finding dozens of other sightless refugees. We hear a priest saying, among other things, “God is punishing us.” Statues in the church, including Jesus on the cross, have all been blindfolded. Saints’ eyes in stained-glass windows have been taped over. The residents of Ward One theorize about what it means. Some think it suggests a show of solidarity with those who’ve lost their sight; another guesses that it symbolizes shattered faith.
There are sex scenes, rapes and nudity in Blindness.
The first rape(s) takes place largely in the dark, but we still see and hear far too much. Men grope women and rip off their clothes. We see shadowy gyrations and hear moans and screams. A woman is forced to give someone oral sex at gunpoint, and the man threatens bodily mutilation if she doesn’t comply. Other men graphically describe what they want their victims to do sexually. (Afterwards, a Ward Three man gloats, telling the women they performed very well.) The mass sexual assault leaves one woman dead, and her surviving wardmates carry her body back and tenderly wash it. A second rape scene includes more shadowy images of naked men on top of largely unseen women. Again the air is filled with grunts and screams.
The doctor has sex with the call girl—an interlude the doctor’s wife discovers and forgives. The man and his wife are also shown in bed after sex. He touches her face tenderly and says her beauty is the only thing he need remember of his sighted days.
Pre-blindness, the call girl has noisy sex with a paying customer. After she loses her sight, she flees from her hotel room, fully nude.
Because no one can see, modesty seemingly ceases to be an issue. Accordingly, scenes involve full-frontal male and female nudity as people shower in rainstorms. A few elderly women can be seen lying in bed, their breasts and buttocks exposed. We briefly glimpse the side of the doctor’s nude body. A man gropes the call girl’s breasts. Characters verbally (and graphically) reference menstruation.
After the death of the Ward One woman, the doctor’s wife sneaks into Ward Three and kills the king by stabbing him in the neck with a pair of scissors. “Every day we go without food, one of your men will die! We collect from now on!” she announces, her sight no longer a secret. Elsewhere, the call girl kicks a guy in the leg with one of her stiletto-heeled feet, and the wound later becomes disgustingly infected.
That fellow eventually crawls out of the quarantine facility, where the guards shoot him. Guards also shoot three other people, and their bodies are left unattended for hours before the folks from Ward One bury them. The king of Ward Three occasionally fires his gun at people. After he’s killed, his protégé commandeers the pistol and starts shooting randomly, possibly hitting his own men.
A resident sets the quarantine facility on fire. A grisly scene pictures dogs devouring a dead body. We see video clips of auto and plane accidents—ostensibly news stories referencing the havoc called by the blindness. A woman, shuffling off to give her body to the men of Ward Three, ponders running outside and getting shot by the guards instead. “At least it’d be faster,” she says.
Characters use the f-word at least 35 times and the s-word another 10 or so. God’s name gets misused 10 times (once paired with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused four times. Several other profanities (“a–,” “b–ch,” “h—“) are uttered, and the doctor’s wife waves her middle finger at a guard.
The doctor and his wife share a bottle of wine.
A boy wets himself. We see a man urinate in a bathroom, the floors of which are covered with feces. While the doctor’s wife is compassionate to her charges, she refuses to care for others outside her primary sphere of influence. When she raids a grocery store, for example, she ignores the clutching blind people all around her, taking food back to feed her makeshift family. When blind folks walk into a deserted store where she and the remnants of Ward One have holed up, she yells at them to go away.
“I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see.”
So says “Amazing Grace,” perhaps Christendom’s best-known hymn. And while this film doesn’t have much to do with God-given grace, Blindness could’ve used those lyrics as its template. The twist: Sometimes you have to get lost before you can find yourself. Sometimes blindness becomes a catalyst for true sight.
This is not a Christian parable. José Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning author of the book Blindness (on which the film is based) is an atheist. Nevertheless, this humanist salvation story does have some resonant spiritual undertones. I find it nearly impossible to believe that Saramago did not have the Apostle Paul in mind (at the very least subconsciously) when he wrote about “white blindness,” a condition in which victims are overwhelmed with light, not darkness. And how, like Paul, that blindness proved to be a path to a deeper understanding for many characters.
This is a deep movie, then. But within those depths lurks monstrous imagery. Scads of sexual encounters, many of them coerced. Disturbing violence. The film may provoke some significant questions, but they’re encased in a horrific shell.
“In some scenes, especially the rape scene, you are seeing things you don’t necessarily want to see,” says Blindness screenplay writer Don McKellar. “You want the freedom to look away, to turn your head, but it’s not being allowed. I wanted the audience to be sharing in the perspective of the doctor’s wife as her field of responsibility widens.”
There are indeed junctures in the film at which you wonder whether the doctor’s wife would rather shut her eyes to the atrocities she sees. She doesn’t do so, and that’s to her credit.
But for the rest of us, I think it’s worth asking whether some things are, in fact, better left unseen.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.