Julianne Moore, in 'Blindness'

Dir. Fernando Meirelles
(R) ★ ½

What a gifted filmmaker Fernando Meirelles is! … I’ll let this one slide.

I have developed a reliable barometer for the quality of a film. There comes a point during a bad one where I push my hands back through my hair in aggravation. If I begin to pull at it, we’re venturing into one-star territory. While screening Speed Racer, I kicked the barrier of the mezzanine and motioned as if to choke myself. If there had been ejector seats during Bratz: The Movie, I would still be in orbit.

Blindness achieves the first stage of aggravation. And as I mussed my hair I yelled at characters to behave as I would behave — indeed as any right-thinking adult would behave. I squinted my eyes; with cinematographer César Charlone, Meirelles works to convey a sense of his characters’ titular condition, but he succeeds only in giving us ugly vision. His images are overexposed, glaring, garish. Most of the characters are afflicted with a kind of blindness where all they can see is bright white. One character retains healthy vision. Those of us in the audience, however, are made to suffer a kind of sight where our eyeballs can’t make up their minds.

But the real problem is the screenplay by Don McKellar, or perhaps even the novel by José Saramago, which I haven’t read. It presents an inexplicable series events following a mysterious outbreak of blindness in an unnamed city that is an amalgam of Toronto, Canada; Montevideo, Uruguay; and São Paulo, Brazil. The blind are rounded up and interred in a facility not unlike a concentration camp, which has little infrastructure and zero supervision. Apparently, no one in charge has considered the drawbacks of holding a hundred or so newly blind people in a tightly packed, unfamiliar location with no one to tell them where the bathroom is. These must be the same people who were in charge of FEMA trailers in New Orleans.

It’s no surprise, then, that a small group of opportunists takes control and demands payment in exchange for food, first in the form of jewelry and then in the form of sexual currency. Here’s the wrinkle: one person in the facility, played by Julianne Moore, still has her sight. She faked blindness so that she could join her husband (Mark Ruffalo), who was infected, and she keeps it a secret from everyone but him. He is adamant that they not fight back, lest they begin a war in the facility.

Let us pause for a moment to consider his logic. When a team of sadists is forcibly raping your friends and neighbors with no guarantee that you will get food in return, would you be worried about starting a war? Perhaps the victimized women can explain to him when the war really began.

His position might be reasonable if he didn’t know his wife could see, which is such a tactical advantage that it wouldn’t be much of a war. The tyrants have possession of only one firearm and no one to aim it. How will she hope to avoid injury from the person wielding it? Take a small step to the left — war’s over. I am reminded of the final battle in X-Men: The Last Stand where the underlings engage in futile hand-to-hand combat while disproportionately powerful mutants like Magneto and Storm watch from above. If the underlings were smart, they would have sent Magneto and Storm to duke it out on a private island out in the Pacific. The winner would fly back and decide the future of mutant-kind. You would save countless lives, not to mention the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Julianne Moore character is Magneto. Her opponent is Mr. Magoo. Her inaction is baffling. But the screenplay simply accepts it, and so does Meirelles, whose direction of Moore’s performance suggests no such conflict. I don’t know if the novel is written in the same way; if it is, I have no desire to read it. The story does not survive it.

The film seems to be a study of human society collapsed as the result of great crisis, but none of the human behavior is credible. There is the Moore character, who refuses to take simple action to avert gang rape and exploitation. There is the Ruffalo character, who urges her not to do so. And there are the tyrants, who are not characters at all but variations of Snidely Whiplash. They are not Evil with a capital “E.” They are EVIL — all caps. At one point, one of the villains (Maury Chaykin) describes what he might do to a victim’s nipples, and the dialogue is both queasily ridiculous and wretched.

Eventually, the story leaves this facility and moves to the streets, which seem lifted from the bleak dystopia of Children of Men, a much better film about the collapse of civil society. These later scenes are better than what came before, but by this stage the story has lost me and isn’t getting me back. Blindness doesn’t have much of value to say about society, except that emergency facilities for the blind should be better operated and that a person with sight should not wait so long to do what is obvious. It says little about the human condition other than to demonstrate that prolonged exposure to over-lit photography can be irritating. What it says about filmmaking is that you should watch Children of Men instead.