Can a film be faulted for being too sympathetic toward its characters, for limning a milieu with extraneous humanism? Breathing, the directorial debut of broodingly masculine Austrian actor Karl Markovics, presents us with a social landscape so humanly plush and cluttered with evidence of individual disgrace that no one appears to warrant the blame for the story’s primary hardship. This ostensible interpersonal patience, however, creates a sinewy distance between the nuanced moralities being enacted and the world that surrounds them (in this case, an unrecognizably mod-urban Vienna) as well as between the central action and its off-screen audience.
Following an orphaned juvenile delinquent, Roman (Thomas Schubert), on the cusp of both parole and adulthood, the plot furnishes itself with a surfeit of opportunities to exercise ethical open-endedness. The boy, though 19, still glares at his environment with the quiet, furrowed befuddlement of early adolescence, a calmly troubled surface from underneath of which we can’t help but intuit cataclysmic emotional tectonics. (There are also formidable cracks in the facade; in the opening scene, Roman tries out a job in a welding factory, but shrieks and writhes violently when the foreman attempts to fit him with a safety mask.) And his exterior experience mirrors this internal numbness interspersed with pockets of terror; photographed in pellucid Cinemascope, the film favors static, just-barely-below eye level wide shots that show off a palette of stale, fluorescent blues and greens suggestive of artificial stasis. When the cavities of Roman’s body are probed every day after he returns to the prison from career hunting, the camera catalogues the humiliation from the other side of the beige examination room, fair but unflattering. When he swims in the (somewhat unbelievably) clean prison pool, we’re with him under the water, encased in ghostly, salubrious bubbles and light streaks.
Roman’s impending release is contingent on his securing employment, a challenge that eventually places him on roving shifts at a morgue where his older co-workers rib him as both a temp and a criminal, changing his hours without notice and forcing him to handle cadavers for the sake of testing his limits. It’s a heavy-handed choice of vocation (the trafficking of death ironically suggesting the murder for which Roman was incarcerated, and his decaying jeunesse), though the corpse-collection scenes are some of the movie’s most trenchant, intertwining the frank, existential gallows humor of Yojiro Takita’s Departures with the greasy underbelly of smooth commercialism also exposed in Christian Petzold’s Jerichow. But Roman’s assimilation process is made narratively problematic when it thrusts him unexpectedly into the past, forcing him to confront a filial trauma that has little bearing on his future, and that comes together with such little effort on his part (e.g. a single phone call and a following train ride) that we’re puzzling over why he wasn’t motivated to take the same steps earlier. That he ambushes his long lost mother in an IKEA is entirely apt, given the scenario’s contrived nature, plug-and-play dramatic convenience, and failure to disrupt the movie’s sheen, glossy aesthetic.
In its final act, the film daringly asks us to forgive Roman’s mother (Karin Lischka) for an act of senseless cruelty, but it’s clear that Markovics has already shown her a worldly lenience. (Her bottom lip is scored with a viral sore while she shops for a new mattress after her old one “gives out”; these clues to her humble profession are hardly even clues, though they’re meant to “subtly” primp her with pitiful unreadiness for any mature responsibility.) Rather than seeming noble such reminders that “we’re all dealing with our own shit” confuse our identification with the protagonist, whose inwardly directed fury should have been given more palpable on-screen representation: Markovics matches his sterility, but not the confused anger it springs from. We ultimately feel a sickeningly spongey understanding for every face to which the camera turns—not only that of Roman and his mother, both also the kid’s parole officer, who reveals a troubled marriage while on a cellphone, and those of his churlish fellow employees, all of whom turn out to be “all right,” after all. Given this pillowy reentry into society following a brief hazing, and the adroitness with which he flirts with an American girl on a train in another sequence, it’s not difficult for us to imagine Roman eventually building something of value for himself. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said be for writer-director Markovics.