This offering from Austria presents a trifecta win: visually stunning, acting that makes you feel tremendous blows and unexpected highs and a profound character-driven plot.
Eighteen-year-old Roman (Thomas Schubert) is dead inside. He lives at a juvenile detention facility. His social worker/parole officer is frustrated that Roman keeps screwing up his go-sees. He’s up for another parole hearing and a job would help. He implores Roman has to care.
It’s still early days in our getting-to-know-Roman process when he hands his PO a job ad and declares that this is the job he wants—the reaction conveys all. This man who has been grumbling for Roman to get a job is dumbfounded and wonders if the serious Roman is joking.
Roman leaves very early for the first day of a trial work period at the mortuary. Roman takes in every experience as if seeing dead bodies for the first time. We learn that five years ago, he committed a crime that landed him at the detention center. At the new job, one of his co-workers alludes to Roman’s crime (we, the audience have yet to been enlightened) and hazes him.
Roman learns bodies are heavy, they stink and there is a process involved in this work. What shakes up the plot is the day he handles a corpse sharing his surname. We learn that Roman doesn’t know his own mother’s name. The mystery deepens.
Schubert, as Roman, carries Breathing. His loneliness is heavy and he shares this burden with the viewer. He’s sweet, he’s hard, he’s hurt. Breathing takes its time telling us the story. The dialog doesn’t bore us with filler. When Roman meets his mother Margit (Karin Lischka) for the first time, she’s testing a mattress at IKEA. They converse as if polite acquaintances. Their real conversation goes down in the IKEA cafeteria. It’s a darkly comedic yet gloomy moment. (Makes you wonder how many pivotal conversations germinate over Swedish meatballs or seafood salad?)
Another rich aspect is experiencing what gaining freedom looks like to a teenager who has been raised in institutions his entire life. Each outing—each train ride to work, each house he visits to pick up a dead body, each item in people’s home and even the inside of IKEA—is a rebirth. And, Roman’s expressions convey this. You experience freedom as Roman deconstructs it. It’s an incredible experience to capture for an audience. I watched it twice and no detail is there by chance.
One detail was opaque. Roman swims on his own in the pool at the detention center. The other boys don’t swim until he is done and I don’t know why. Does it mean they won’t swim with him or is there a reason he must complete his laps alone? Additionally, the European furlough system is shocking to an American used to our system where offenders are locked up and not released until the sentence ends and with little preparation for the outside world, employment and assimilation back into society.
Breathing is simple yet profound. The writing is strong and the cinematography is lush and impressive—many shots able to pass as exquisite photographs. It’s the acting, though, that will sock you in the heart. You feel Roman’s loneliness, his pain, his mother’s shame. You warm to the parole officer in the end because any of these characters could be you. I’m not a criminal, a parolee nor was I a teen mother but Breathing made me feel what they experienced.
Here’s a nice morsel. If you saw, the award-winning Austrian movie, The Counterfeiters, you will recognize the director of Breathing, Karl Markovics, who played the lead role.
Writer/Director: Karl Markovics
Run time: 94 minutes