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Words and design Avalon Lyndon Breathing (Atmen) must be one of the most self-assured and accomplished first features around. It’s the work of Austrian actor-turned-director Karl Markovics, who you might recognise from The Counterfeiters, the film which walked away with the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007. Maybe it’s the wisdom of experience, but this side-step in Markovics’ career has completely paid off. Breathing is one of the most exquisitely shot and quietly moving films you will see this year. 18-year-old loner Roman (Thomas Schubert) might be staring into the precipice of adulthood, but he’s barely ever been exposed to the real world. Handed over to social services by his mother when he was just a baby, Roman grows up in care until an altercation with another boy sees him placed in a juvenile detention centre. He’s been
there ever since. With a parole hearing on the cards, Roman takes a job at a local mortuary to boost his chances of being released. What he learns there shapes his life in ways he could never have imagined. Breathing comes at an interesting moment in cinema. Both Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike have recently posed questions about
childhood trauma, parental neglect and crime. Less stylised than Ramsay’s film, less slavishly realist than the Dardennes’, Breathing has carved out its own niche between the two. Markovics roots his coming-ofage drama deep in the big questions of life and death, right and wrong. But his film is never bogged down in philosophy. Life at the mortuary is a surprisingly simple existence; death is
an everyday occurrence, and with the acceptance of the inevitable comes a certain kind of peace. There’s a blasé humour among the mortuary workers, and their touches of black comedy prevent the film from sinking into chin-stroking pontification. Breathing is anchored to reality by its strange marriage of the banal and the profound. A lot is placed onto the shoulders of its young lead but Schubert, who
plays Roman, makes it look effortless. A non-professional, he only turned up to the auditions because a friend wanted to go along. What a find he’s turned out to be. There’s a brilliant, believable naturalism to his performance that makes some scenes genuinely heartbreaking. While he barely says a word throughout, his stony expression cracks from time to time with tell-tale signs of struggle. At one point, a co-worker teaches him to
â€œBreathing is one of the most exquisitely shot and quietly movin films you will see this ye
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tie his tie for the first time. Roman tries not to let on how important this moment is to him, but we know. As more is revealed about his life before the juvenile centre, we watch him grow before our eyes. Outside of Schubert’s phenomenal performance, it’s the film’s cinematography which will really knock your socks off. Take the pool scene, splashed all over the promotional posters: Roman lies stock-still on the bottom of the detention centre’s swimming pool, watching the legs of the other boys kicking in the water as they perch warily on the poolside. It’s an outstanding scene that will sear itself into your memory. Every shot has a focus on colour – the green-tinged walls of Roman’s cell, the orange seats of the commuter train, or the deep aqua blue of the swimming pool. You can tell this is the work of an extremely talented DOP, and Martin Gschlacht is one of the best Austria has to offer.
Markovics maintains that every film starts, for him, with a single image; Breathing, he claims, began with a vision of an old woman lying dead on the floor of her home. It’s a sad image: shocking, unsettling, but also strangely beautiful. It’s this level of subtle, understated detail and emotion that really sets this film apart from the rest. Fragile, harsh and visually stunning, Breathing is a revelation. Here’s hoping Markovics hurries back behind the camera; we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.