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CANNES 2011 Directors' Fortnight / Austria

When Breathing is hard


When Breathing is hard

Actor-turned-director Karl Markovics’s debut feature Breathing [+see also:
film profile
, presented in the Directors' Fortnight, is a superb film whose main character, Roman (played by the incredible non-professional Thomas Schubert), is a juvenile detainee who has always been "in the system" (having been abandoned at birth).

Roman is engaged in an intolerable wait for the moment when a window – something bigger than the single postcard pinned to the wall of his otherwise bare cell – towards something better will open. For now, he has no friends, no distractions and no freedom, and he doesn't seem to care. As he replies when a colleague says one should only wish to have what is available, "Isn't that what you get anyway?"

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Detainment, constriction, in a nutshell the inability to breathe, ever, is conveyed by his entire existence. As a probation applicant with little chance of parole, he has to behave impeccably. And as a day release prisoner, as well as a new employee at the municipal morgue, he has a strict schedule to follow.

His very breathing is controlled in many ways, not only when he returns every night to the juvenile detention centre and has to undress, bend and cough, but also when he tends to the dead bodies; or the one time he allows himself a beer and must blow into a breathalyzer; and again, when he comes out breathless from a swimming pool. Even Martin Gschlacht's camera never leaves his still, tight-lipped face, which creates intense empathy on the part of the viewer.

This powerful sense of suffocation we are made to feel, which truly weighs on one's chest, is painfully exacerbated by the fact that wherever he goes (wherever he is forced to be, really), the former state orphan is unwanted. At the morgue, his co-worker (Georg Friedrich) is particularly unwelcoming, which tries Roman's endurance in his mostly dehumanised task of dealing with the corpses, especially after he sees the naked, dead body of a woman who wears his same last name and could be his mother.

The event suddenly awakens his need for answers, for some form of reconciliation with the fate he has endured so far without complaining, and some form of human contact. As the image of his swimming sessions suggests, one can only stop breathing for so long before emerging again.

(Translated from French)

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