Amy (Mira Sorvino), a New York City architect, takes a needed break at a mountain spa where she falls in love with her blind masseur, Virgil (Val Kilmer). He has congenital cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. His older sister Jenny (Kelly McGillis) has looked after him for twenty years since their father left and their mother died. She is jealous of Amy’s place in Virgil’s life, and he is angered when Amy contacts a specialist hoping to help him see again.

At first, he resents the implication that his blindness is a problem. But he decides to leave with Amy for New York, where his cataracts are removed. When the bandages are removed he is terrified by the confusing sights that his brain cannot recognize (visual agnosia).

Virgil’s slow adjustment to vision is an exciting challenge, but it drives a wedge between him and Amy. When the retinal disease returns and he begins to go blind again, he leaves her and sets out on his own finding work at a school for blind children. The film ends with a promising moment as Amy and Virgil encounter each other in Central Park.


The ever-present theme of this film is that seeing is not perceiving. As a blind man, Virgil is in tune with his world, sensitive to nuance, and loved. Sighted, he is clumsy, withdrawn, and disagreeable. The film explains visual agnosia very well and handles credibly and with delicacy the harmful "good intentions" of the able-bodied who wish to "help" those who are already well adjusted to disability.

The jealousy of the sister, who needs her brother’s disability for her own raison d’être, is comprehensible, though heavy-handed in its portrayal. In general, the writing and acting, especially in the naive medical scenes, are slightly wooden and overblown in a surfeit of metaphors. Nevertheless, a cameo appearance by neurologist Oliver Sacks as a wordless face in a crowd is a nice cinematic touch.

The wonder of sight finally dawns on Virgil just as he is about to lose it again: he identifies his haunting but unlabelled first memory (cotton candy). He is grateful for having had the opportunity to see, but his worthy final message speaks for disabled everywhere: it seems that when I am blind, I can see more.


Based on the true story "To See and Not See" by Oliver Sacks, first published in The New Yorker and again in An Anthropologist on Mars (1995).

Primary Source

MGM Home Video