Austria’s official entry for the Foreign Language gong at last year’s Oscar, Breathing is the sort of film that rewards patience, as it starts out slow and almost deliberately obtuse, before revealing an ever more absorbing story.
Roman Kugler (Thomas Schubert) is an 18-year-old locked up in a youth detention centre who’s allowed out on day release to go to work. After one job falls apart, he starts working at a morgue, which brings him face-to-face with death in ways he hadn’t expected. With the hearing that could see him released coming up, he starts to come to terms with the crime he was locked up for, as well as trying to find some sort of reconciliation with his past in children’s homes and his sense of abandonment.
For the first half an hour, I have to admit I was getting increasingly frustrated with Breathing. The movie initially seems determined not to tell you anything, so that there’s no real info on why Roman is locked up and our insights into him are rather oblique (to be honest, he comes across as a bit of an annoying ass). However if you give the movie a chance, things begin to becomes clearer, with the early part of the film essentially allowing us to meet Roman as a young man, without knowing what he’s done or the baggage of his childhood that he brings with him.
Slowly things become clearer, and while the disclosure of what got Roman locked up for isn’t as revelatory as the build-up might have suggested (which is probably deliberate), it does help fill out this character study of a confused young man trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t seem to want him. This is helped tremendously by Thomas Shubert as Roman, who in his movie debut expertly plays a character who initially seems moody and a bit of an asshole, before revealing himself as much more vulnerable and wounded than he first appears.
While some of the movie’s symbolism is a little heavy-handed and there are occasional issues with structure, it’s still a film that’s worth spending some time with. It’s difficult not to feel for Roman by then end, who is as much victim as perpetrator.
Overall Verdict: While many will find the first part of the film a little dull, patience is rewarded with a moving and thought-provoking character study of a young man on the edge of society, struggling to find a way back.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac