[xrr rating=3.25/5]Breathing is the directorial debut of Austrian actor Karl Markovics, undoubtedly best known in the U.S. (to the degree that he’s known at all) for playing the lead role in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters. He also had a supporting role in one of those thrillers that requires Liam Neeson to glower and grimace as he punches his way through some familial-related conspiratorial crisis, but I doubt that even the oak-like thespian himself can tell those apart any longer, so who could be expected to recognize Markovics from that? Besides, referencing his position as a bit player in some arid cinematic potboiler might give the wrong impression about his inaugural work as a writer-director, which is thoughtful, meticulous and peppered with moments of starkly strong emotion.

The film concerns a young man named Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), serving time in a juvenile detention center in Vienna for a crime that is initially references only cryptically, but was clearly of great significance. That’s partially apparent by the demeanor of Roman. He’s quiet, withdrawn, operating with a level of distraction that leads to carelessness. He’s a boy slipping into manhood while tragically lost within his own soul, edging through a life that seems to offer no foothold for him to begin climbing away from his past transgressions. His next chance for parole is coming up soon, and he’s urged to get a probation job to demonstrate his readiness to rejoin society. After at least one false start, Roman settles on a position with the local mortuary, which involved, in part, retrieving the recently deceased and preparing the physical bodies as they progress to the endless darkness of the grave.

It initially seems that the film is going to be about Roman coming alive through working with the dead, and there’s a striking, sometimes even amusing frankness about the particulars of the job. Lifeless bodies are heavy and cumbersome, and Roman’s new coworkers approach tragic situations with a casualness that suggests the persistent spiritual salve of familiarity. When one last review of the paperwork indicates the Christian background of a man being arranged for final transport to the funeral home, a cross is hastily shoved into his hands with a perfunctory, “Check!” But Markovics wisely also illustrates the unbearable intimacy of working with the recently deceased in their home, a sense compounded by the way Roman notices the materials that surround an old woman’s death bed: the family photos arrayed on a bedside table and the cutesy ceramic knick-knacks positioned to look over her. It’s just a job, but once with grief and sorrow all around the edges.

There’s more to the story crafted by Markovics, though. Prompted by the shock of seeing a cadaver that shares his last name, Roman begins probing into his own troubled history, seeking, almost subconsciously, a greater understanding of what formed his being as a pathway to coming to terms with both his past crime and the looming possibility of an emergence from the cloistered institutions that have dominated his young life. There’s no real sense that he’s on this exploratory journey because of his proximity to mortality, but it is instead his uncertain induction into the mechanics of operating in the world that stirs him to motion, as demonstrated by his awkward interaction with a pretty girl (Luna Mijovic) who he meets on the train one day.

If a characteristically European reticence to exploit the fraught emotions of high drama occasionally leads Breathing to drift somewhat, finding its voice as assuredly as Roman must, that same placidness can make the most piercing moments all the more impactful. Different confessions of acts of aggression against others are lent greater weight because they’re delivered at a low volume, almost murmured, as if dampened by shame. Markovics has a nice eye in his shot choices, even if he occasionally skews towards imagery that’s a tad too indulgent, a common infraction among first-time directors, but it’s finally his sure-handedness with the emotion progress of the lead character that carries the film. Breathing delivers the simple but necessary message that it takes putting away the past to get on with the future.

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