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By KJ Doughton | May 30, 2012

I’m slurping up the last foamy drops of a caramel latte, preparing to bail from the Uptown Espresso café in Queen Anne. The Seattle International Film Festival is exploding into life at a multi-screen cinema just up the block. A Grand Central Station for hyped-up screen-voyeurs, the SIFF Cinema Uptown was once known merely as “Uptown Cinema,” before being adopted by the festival in 2011. Since 1926, onscreen images from this historic movie-house have burned through millions of retinas.

As can be expected, the nearby Uptown Espresso serves as a sort of movie-mingling spot for cinema spectators to swig espresso, rejuvenating themselves in preparation for the next two-hour sedentary stint. An enthusiastic, seventy-something attendee in goatee and beanie approaches me.

“What have you enjoyed at the Festival?”

“Well, I felt that the film ‘High Ground’ was an emotional powerhouse.”

“I didn’t like that one.”

“I’ve had similar reactions to SIFF films. I saw ‘Dreams of a Life’ and was disappointed.”

“You know, I really enjoyed that one.”

We both laughed, and agreed that in the Festival environment, where an elderly veteran might debate the merits of some obscure Lithuanian film with a twenty-year old peacenik, viewers could agree to disagree. This spontaneous, waiting-in-line banter is part of SIFF’s charm. Even if a movie sucks, the after-show’s amiable arguments are always thought-provoking and rewarding.

This year’s 25-day event will attract 90,000 attendees, each one passionate about film. There will be tens of thousands of conversations about 450 features on hand… in waiting lines, at parties, and during special “red carpet” events. It’s a wonderful movie melting-pot, showing that a group of like-minded people from 70 different countries can debate opinion and offer perspectives as the reels of celluloid continue to snake through projectors.

SIFF is a beautiful thing. It’s a uniting force. It’s more than just a film festival.

So far, I’ve surfed through only three of the 13 theaters participating in SIFF, and have already seen truly magnificent stories (“Eden”) as well as pompous drivel (“Dreams of a Life”).  It’s all good, even if it’s bad.

Austria’s “Dreaming,” directed by Karl Markovics, confirms that life isn’t always a warm, touchy-feely friendship-fest. It can be a wretched trudge through mundane, miserable routines.

Imagine, for instance, being a pissed-off teenager tired of pushing a button every night granting you entry to a concrete, soul-crushing juvenile detention center. Maybe you killed someone, and you’re wasting away the hours in a cell with other sad miscreants, enduring daily body cavity searches.

Your days are spent looking for a job. That’s part of your rehabilitation program, and the only way you’ll convince a judge to lift your sentence and grant your freedom. So you take up a gig as mortician’s assistant. You’re told to breathe through your mouth in certain odorous refrigeration rooms, where the newly-deceased have been shipped in for coffin-fitting and embalming. A*****e co-workers get wind of your past criminal history, and chortle, “This isn’t your first corpse, is it?”

“Breathing” follows Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), as he lives through this dire situation. His anger manifests itself in piercing eyes and a won’t-back-down attitude. You can’t win a staring contest with this intimidating guy, who has nothing to lose and would not hesitate to pound you into mincemeat. Kogler might be scary – but he’s also jaded, indifferent, and defeated. One day, a nude, forty-something female corpse with shaved pubic hair and a stitched-up stomach is dumped into a coffin. She shares his family name.

Holy crap.

Kogler was given up for adoption as a small child, by a mother he’s never known. But the body stirs him into action. Although they have no relationship, there’s still a confused terror in his eyes when he realizes this cold, dead body could be that of his biological parent. There’s suddenly an urgency to find out if his mother still lives, and he’s compelled to track her down.

“Breathing” is a quiet film about a boy who’s not entirely likable. But who’s to blame him? We get some sense of how his anger resulted in actions that chewed up years in his young life. We also come to understand that he’s from a bloodline marked by un-checked frustrations.

My favorite scene in “Breathing” involves Kogler’s commute on a train from employer to detention center. A lovely young lady – American, uninhibited, cheerful – offers him a beer. He knows that a breath test is inevitable upon his return to lock-down, but he shares in some sweet, flirty imbibing. Kogler’s suddenly become awake to the energetic vitality of “normalcy,” floating on a fleeting cloud of infatuation, and smiling his first smile in the film.

“Breathing” is a very sober movie, and a good one. There’s pain, discovery, the cauterizing of wounds, and as much closure as can be expected in Kogler’s sad situation. Its exploration of how a ghost-like boy learns how to pull away from the dead bodies in his mortuary to take his place amongst the living will haunt you.

Stay tuned as SIFF continues.

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