Roman (Thomas Schubert), an institutionalised young offender, finds himself on the brink of another parole hearing. Advised to take part in the work-release program to better his chances, Roman takes on employment at a local mortuary. After he happens upon a body bag labelled with his surname, he’s moved to track down his absent mother (Karin Lischka) who helps force him to come to terms with his past actions, his potential freedom and the rocky road to stability.

Rooted in the affliction felt by an adolescent haunted by his past, Austrian actor best known for his role in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiter Karl Markovics’ writing and directorial debut is a muted and tightly wound affair. Though soliciting many substantial themes within its narrative, such as sorrow, death, loneliness and atonement, Markovics, through a noticeable lack of dialogue and set pieces, leaves much to the perceptiveness of the audience. This allows them to decipher the many implications held within Roman’s contained, unembellished personality without ever prescribing too much and weighing down the beautifully repressed narrative, which would feel awkwardly out of place.

Behind the shades of grey, however, Breathing is a touching tale of a boy-come-man forced to accept the horrors of his past and reintegrate himself into a society that’s completely different to the one he knew. Marred by loneliness, a troubled childhood and year’s of adhering to the same routine, Roman’s reintegration into the world – marked by his caution both towards his first encounter with a corpse and the moments shared with his newfound work colleagues – isn’t one that comes easily, but it is one that feels entirely believable and respectful of a real-life situation, particularly in the way Roman slowly warms to society rather than retreating further into his shell.

Markovics filters out the plot devices delicately, so as not too offer up too much information too soon. Some may find it off-putting, while others will praise the mercurial approach. Nonetheless, with the aid of cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s faded textural sheen and the languid, attenuated pace in which the narrative plays out, a relaxed, prudent tone is established, allowing for an honest, conceivable and faultless performance to be administered by newcomer Schubert.

Without excessive dialogue, Schubert is able to rely on his body language and facial expressions to impart an unnerving sense of Roman’s unease – something that seems to enhance the despair hidden behind Roman’s eyes. His confinement has had an obvious effect on his existence and, no matter what he attempts to shed his shackles (the chance encounter with a train passenger provokes an unexpected rebelliousness to flare up), the fact he has to endure a strip search every night limits his efforts.

Breathing is, without ever being bullish, a tangible tale told in a dutiful manner that allows the audience to take as little or as much from it as they so wish. With his directorial debut, Markovics has positioned himself well, not only as a filmmaker who has a stalwart skill and knowledge for his craft, but also one with a desire to tell a story removed of artifice and pretence.