We’ve come a long way from The Sound of Music. A long way. And that’s no bad thing – this is another starkly filmed portrayal of the bleaker side of Austria (see Michael) reflecting a more sombre life where there the brown paper packages tied up with string almost certainly have a head in them. This is Vienna, but not as we know it.
Breathing is Karl Markovics first as director (he starred in 1997 Foreign Oscar winner The Counterfeiters) and it’s an assured debut. Roman is a juvenile offender who has spent his childhood in institutions then been imprisoned at 14 for killing another boy in a fight. He’s now 19 and coming up for parole so working day release to support his case, though struggling to find something he can stick with. Roman’s life has been spent within grey walls, with little scope for anything but following rules – it’s left him without many of the usual building blocks for life and also slightly claustrophobic, and we only understand late in the film how this might have contributed to the killing he’s doing time for.
As almost a last resort, and when it seems like everyone is giving up on him, Roman finds work in a morgue and after a rocky start with some unfriendly colleagues who don’t expect the youngster to last long and despite the grim parade of corpses he has to learn how to deal with, Roman begins to find a role for himself. As he does, he forms some gradual bonds with his workmates and begins to address the real possibility of having a life of his own. As he starts to open up, the arrival of a corpse sharing his surname prompts him to track down the mother who dumped him as a baby.
This is Thomas Schubert’s first film and under Markovics’ guidance, he puts in a remarkably intense performance as Roman, a lost teenager trying to understand how to grow up. It’s starkly filmed with occasional bursts of intense colour – like the deep blue of the swimming pool Roman finds escape in or the garish holiday advertisement he passes every morning on the way to work, all bosoms and sunshine. It isn’t until the moment Roman finally confronts his mother – in Ikea of all places – that suddenly colour is everywhere, there are couples, conversations, meatballs… all the things that are suddenly within reach.
Breathing is an extremely powerful film – the scene where the body of an old woman is washed and dressed while her daughter cries outside is particularly gently done and a real gem. You find yourself rooting for this quiet troubled boy as, in his own steady way, Roman deals with dark pools of his past and finds a way to move forward.