Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: August 31, 2012
Directed by: Karl Markovics
Stars: 4 out of 5
“Breathing” is the story of Austrian teenager Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), a legal adult but has no real adult skills. He was given up by his mother and was placed in an orphanage where he didn’t quite fit in. At the tender age of 14, he killed a fellow orphan, which got him a transfer to a juvenile jail facility. The other kids in the facility are clearly scared of him, which suits Roman just fine because that means they won’t try to socialize with him. Socializing would mean having to interact with another person, which he clearly has no interest in doing.
Roman has been up for parole several times, but his lack of a mother or any other family members to take him in makes the parole board nervous. They fear he would not be able to stay out of trouble without someone who cares to look after him, so they keep denying his parole. He has another hearing coming up, one which he has already resigned himself to losing.
His counselor, Walter (Gerhard Liebmann), sees things differently for Roman. He believes this could finally be the parole hearing where the board will allow Roman to go free, if only he can prove that he will be a productive member of society. Walter encourages him to begin working part time in the work release program during the day. He chooses a menial job as the assistant of the local coroner, wheeling in and cleaning off dead bodies.
One day he is called to retrieve the body of a woman who has his birth mother’s same name. He breathes a sigh of relief when he finds out it isn’t her, one of the early signs that he has real emotions just beneath the surface. Since his mom (Karin Lischka) is presumably still alive, he makes it his mission to find her. He hopes that the confrontation will explain why she abandoned him and help him feel like he is worthy of love. The film could have veered into mushy territory here, but writer/director Karl Markovics ensures that it doesn’t. Instead, he crafted his script to be more realistic about human connections without the sentimentality that is usually associated with this topic.
Though his reunion with his mother does not turn out exactly how he wants, his façade begins to slowly fade away as he has more interactions with people. Of particular note is a cute girl, Mona (Luna Mijovic), who flirts with him on the train. He doesn’t betray any affinity for her but does seem somewhat interested, which is a marked improvement over his usual emotional detachment.
“Breathing” marks the directorial debut of Markovics, who had previously been an actor. Actors often make great directors because they are familiar with the craft and can coax good performances out of actors. Just take a look at George Clooney, an actor so good that he has an Oscar, yet decided to direct movies at least part of the time. Not all actors are good at stepping behind the camera, but Markovics displays no such vulnerabilities. Instead, he leaves the vulnerabilities to Roman, who has an awful lot of them to get over.
Another great thing about Markovics’ work here is that he does not feel the need to water down his script for audience approval. The changes that happen to Roman over the course of the film are often subtle and are never explained with dialogue or exposition. Instead, Markovics assumes you are going to pick up on all the little nuances that Schubert expertly brings to the table. All of these subtle changes will add up in a big way later in the film, but you have to pay attention to pick up on them. A second viewing may yield more of these subtleties that you hadn’t picked up the first time.
Even more surprising than Markovics’ directorial debut is the fact that Schubert is also a first-time actor. “Breathing” is his first major film, with his only other credit on IMDb being a television show. It is rare to find an actor who can portray a mix of guilt, repression and resigned hope that Schubert does here. It makes Roman so compelling that by the end of the film, you may forget he ever murdered someone. You definitely won’t forget his struggle to forgive himself for it, because it is a masterful performance.