Austrian thesp Karl Markovics makes a very confident directorial debut with his small but perfectly formed slice of stylized social realism, “Breathing.” Pic keeps an ultra-tight focus on a juvenile prisoner as he toils at day-release work that could help win him parole. That this employment happens to be in Vienna’s municipal morgue gives pic its highly individual flavor, while the morbid setting neatly coaxes catharsis from the impassive protag. Winner of the Directors’ Fortnight prize for European film, this specialty item should come up for air in further fest outings, with a few deeper breaths at adventurous arthouses worldwide.
Nineteen-year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert) lives in a juvenile detention center outside Vienna. He’s a loner, ignored but not victimized by his fellow inmates. He’s had no luck holding down any of the jobs offered prisoners on daily furlough, but his unfathomably patient parole officer (Gerhard Liebmann) isn’t ready to give up. That’s when he joins the team collecting, transporting and delivering cadavers around the city.
Writer-helmer Markovics, controlling the release of expository information with the same care he deploys in deliberately framing each shot, makes a little go a long way. His story is beguilingly modest. Roman, shaken from his studied detachment by the arrival of a femme corpse that shares his surname, is inspired to track down the woman who, we eventually learn, abandoned him at an orphanage as a baby. Perfs are likewise restrained, especially that of untrained actor Schubert, who never mistakes insularity for blankness, commanding our attention with the slightest facial flicker. Spikes in the emotional register, when they arrive, are all the more truthful and compelling.
Crispness is evident throughout — in the economical dialogue, the popping sound design of jangling keys and shoe leather on polished floors, and especially Martin Gschlacht’s attractive widescreen lensing. Given the protag’s home and work life, many of the settings are necessarily bleak, but the film achieves a lyrical beauty, and discovers its arresting marketing image in the detention center’s brightly lit pool. Roman dreams of being an international diving instructor, and attains a temporary respite from his cares as he plows through the blue water.
The pool is hardly the only place where Roman is seen in motion: “Breathing” is a journey from the world he has always known to the one he has only just begun to explore. Markovics never jumps; instead, he always follows his character as he travels by commuter train, bus, car and the morgue’s wagon. Auds willing to hitch a ride should find themselves amply rewarded.