After receiving a call at work that her son has suffered a severe playground accident, a cash-strapped single mother in Sante Fe, Argentina, criss-crosses an unsympathetic city in search of the hospital where he’s been taken, all the while trying to keep her own surging asthma attack under control. A trim, taut second feature from writer-director Arturo Castro Godoy, “Breathe” doesn’t quite take place in real time, though it may as well: As much as cinema loves a ticking clock, in our moments of most feverish panic, doesn’t time lose all rational shape anyway? In any event, Godoy’s film is less concerned with cranking up the thriller mechanics than with conjuring a very believable aura of panic that many a parent will recognize from their nightmares — sustained by a performance of nails-dug-deep conviction by Julieta Zylberberg.
The punchy premise and efficient execution of this emotional tumble dryer, which completes its cycle in just over 70 minutes, should make “Breathe” a hit with audiences at smaller-scale festivals, particularly those with a Latin bent — from Miami, it is set to move on to Malaga, already leaving a bigger international footprint than Godoy’s 2016 debut “El silencio.” While VOD distribution won’t come at much cost to its modestly scaled tension tactics, “Breathe” does act as a persuasive calling card for more elaborate genre outings from its Argentine-based, Venzeuelan-born helmer.
Most happily, “Breathe” provides the most dedicated close-up showcase yet for the dependable gifts of Zylberberg, best known internationally for shouldering a flashy segment of Damián Szifron’s smash “Wild Tales”: It’s practically a one-woman show, notwithstanding the procession of clerks, cabbies and orderlies who either obstruct or facilitate the path of her character, harried checkout worker Lucía, on the worst day of her life. The opening scenes establish a tender, protective bond between Lucía and her grade school-age son Mateo (Ceferino Rodríguez Ibañez), who has Asperger’s syndrome; Godoy’s lean script isn’t at pains to fill in much backstory, though viewers should glean much about their family dynamic from a simple depiction of the morning school run.
No sooner has Lucía clocked in at the supermarket where she works, however, that she receives a frustratingly brusque call from Mateo’s school, informing her that he’s fallen on his head and been rushed to the city hospital. Further details are not forthcoming, as “Breathe” makes the first of several jabs at inefficient institutional bureaucracy: The hospital system comes in for implied criticism too, as do employers’ scant regard for the working rights of single parents. A quick, indifferent suggestion by Lucía’s boss that she ask her husband to handle the matter speaks volumes about entrenched societal misogyny, even as we’re primarily immersed in Lucía’s single-minded maternal crisis.
As she’s buffeted from one vaguely prescribed to the next, her breath shortening as her journey lengthens, Godoy doesn’t overly contrive or exaggerate the drama. (Her asthma, while plausibly and audibly a factor throughout, isn’t cheaply exploited for suspense.) Nerves are jangled by entirely everyday means, be it an urban roadblock or a dwindling cellphone battery, keeping us credibly in Lucía’s headspace throughout. Selectively amplified sound design is particularly effective in maintaining a needling sense of irrational reality, while Hugo Colace’s limber digital camerawork is suitably propulsive without putting much varnish on very ordinary chaos.
The minimalism of the conceit here arguably leads to a slightly anticlimactic closing reel: Lucía’s trajectory, however repeatedly stalled, isn’t a surprising one. Still, Zylberberg’s raddled, expressive performance keeps things gripping even once she starts making sense of the situation, her face a canvas subtly marked by every micro-aggression or passing act of kindness that she encounters along the way. By the 70-minute mark, Lucía seems to have aged an eon an hour; many viewers will be right there with her.