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To hell and back Meirelles film is commentary on the human condition

In "Blindness," director Fernando Meirelles takes us on a trip to hell.

Here, it's not found in the gang-controlled slums of Sao Paolo, as it was in his acclaimed "City of God" and "City of Men." Nor is it found in an exploited African shantytown, as in "The Constant Gardener." It is, however, once again a hell created by humans; in this case, a rundown former mental hospital where a city thrown into chaos by a sudden, mysterious epidemic of blindness quarantines its victims.

The blind, whose number increases every day, are left to fend for themselves in a situation chillingly reminiscent of those during Hurricane Katrina: human waste and garbage everywhere, in the absence of proper facilities; no medical supplies or electricity; limited food; no connection to the outside world; people committing crimes against the others.

However, one woman has been spared somehow from "the white sickness," so called because its victims see only milky whiteness. Having hidden that fact from the hazmat-suited men who come for her blinded husband, she becomes the "eyes" of the afflicted. Meirelles made the wise choice of casting Julianne Moore in this role. As always, she's riveting -- so phenomenal, one is willing to follow her to hell and back.

It helps, too, that Moore is surrounded by a strong cast: the gentle-voiced Mark Ruffalo as her doctor husband, who along with her provides the moral center of their "ward"; Yusuke Iseya as the young businessman stricken first, while driving home; Alice Braga ("City of God") as a call girl afflicted as she ends a "call"; Gael Garcia Bernal as the "king" of the scum who prey on the other "inmates"; Maury Chaykin, particularly hair-raising as his pseudo-gentlemanly "accountant"; screenwriter Don McKellar as a thief; Danny Glover as an old homeless man whose radio provides a touching, albeit already-done-in-"Shawshank Redemption" moment.

It's very hard going at times, especially when Bernal et al. demand sexual favors from the women in return for food. However, the violence is implied rather than graphic, mercifully, and the related scenes stress the strength and unity of the women.

"Blindness" is based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Portuguese author Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in literature three years later. The octogenarian was so wary of filmmakers turning his work into a simplistic horror film that he made McKellar and producer Niv Fichman travel to his home in the Canary Islands to convince him to part with the rights. Saramago apparently has no regrets; in an online video, he has said that watching the movie gave him as much pleasure as writing it.

We don't learn the name of Saramago's city or any of his characters. Perhaps that's his way of including all of us in this parable about our inability to see how interconnected we all are and should be. The story's ultimate hope in brotherhood makes the lesson bearable.

***

BLINDNESS

3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover

DIRECTOR: Fernando Meirelles

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

RATING: R for violence including sexual assaults, language and sexuality/nudity.

THE LOWDOWN: A city afflicted with a mysterious epidemic of blindness quarantines and abandons the victims.

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