Friday 20 April 2012

Waiting to exhale: "Breathing"

One of the conditions for release from juvenile detention centres in Austria turns out to be the securing of trial employment at a business in the area. This will be a halfway job, as it were; a show of good faith on the inmate's part, and a potential stepping stone to better, brighter prospects. We learn this from the quietly compelling new drama Breathing, whose young hero Roman (Thomas Schubert) has elected to work at a morgue, ferrying corpses from homes and hospital basements to their final resting places. The idea is that Roman, a fiery sort first seen storming away from a metalwork job after he's fitted with a welder's helmet, will learn a degree of control, reverence and respect around the departed. Yet the crucial relationships in Karl Markovics' directorial debut are between this taut, coiled boy and the fully-grown adults working around him - notably the morgue's resident mocking alpha (Georg Friedrich), who's exactly the kind of petty tyrant you wouldn't want to have write you a reference if your future freedom depended on it.

In some ways, it's fortuitous Breathing should open in the UK in the wake of The Kid with a Bike's arthouse success. Markovics (so terrific as the lead forger in 2007's The Counterfeiters) invokes the Dardenne brothers - 2002's The Son, in particular - in his film's emphasis on routine: Roman's train journeys to and from work, the strip searches awaiting him when he returns each night. Even the slightest deviation - missing a stop, buying a beer - brings with it dramatic consequences. This is a wider screen, however, the better to depict the spaces Roman is continually confined within - the cell, the train carriages, the back of the truck transporting the coffins connected with the job - and to fully lay out the morbid spectacle of the protagonist's days: the washing and redressing of an elderly woman who's collapsed in her home, surrounded by knick-knacks, or the terrible bungle that sees the morticians called to an accident scene before the paramedics have pronounced.

You can see Markovics has given real thought to the composition of his film from his inspired decision to shoot a crucial mid-film pursuit through the maze of a branch of IKEA, with its wrong turns and glimpses of roads not taken. (And more comfortable existences.) The film is something of an exercise in control itself, rarely overstating its points, and populated by actors holding back just enough, in any given scene, to leave you wanting to know more about these characters. For all its images of suffocation - Roman diving into the detention centre's swimming pool, bodies wrapped in plastic - the title is only fully explained in the closing moments. This is breathing as something fundamental to life, and central to how we grow: Schubert excels as a lad who - for all his rough edges, the occasional strops and slouches that suggest he's not quite ready for rehabiliatation just yet - comes gradually to stand up and look the adult world, with all its hard and bad choices, square in the eye. The final, rising crane shot is as much exhalation as exultation.

Breathing opens in selected cinemas from today.

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