The world has always been a cruel and unforgiving place in many respects.
But lately, as the unceasing tide of refugees, climate change panic and economic malaise, among many other issues real or imagined, has led to some sort of collective panic, people have begun, in a way unique to Homo sapiens, to make it even more so.
Instead of trying to understand what is happening on someone else’s side of the fence, many have simply lashed out in fear, pushed their fellow citizens of plant earth as far away as possible, and bunkered down hoping for the best.
And Breathe Normally by Icelandic writer/director Ísold Uggadóttir challenges the assumption that the only way to cope with the world’s ills, which invariably are always a shared issue regardless of the choking narrowness of your worldview, is to shrug your shoulders and blame the system, as if that’s a living, breathing, sentient system in and of itself.
Instead, she advances the idea, in a film that is measured, nuanced and utterly enveloping from its slate grey cinematography to the lives of its finely-wrought characters, that the only response, the only human response, to the suffering and misery of the people around us is empathy and friendship, connection and involvement.
It’s anathema to the fortress mentality advocates of the world but as this exquisitely beautiful film unfurls itself in ways unhurried and supremely thoughtful, it becomes apparent, if you still have a beating heart within, that there is no other way to humanely face up to the horrors that we, as a species, have largely brought upon ourselves.
We first meet Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir) as she is struggling to pay for groceries for her and her son, Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) her near-wordless struggle to cobble together the full sum of the bill – she fails – writ large on her face, her quiet agony and embarrassment matched by the disinterest and lack of care of those serving her or in the line next to her.
It’s hardly an unusual scene in today’s modern frenetic world; all of us, especially those in big cities have walled ourselves off from the people who live their lives around us, as if ours is the only existence with three dimensions, flesh-and-blood and a beating heart while everyone else are merely passing cardboard cutouts.
It’s an easy way to deal with that which overwhelms us; shut it out, strip it off likeness or meaning and pretend it is nothing like us.
But as Lára struggles through her day-to-day life, one marked by calls from her landlord over unpaid rent, overdue bills and emotional emptiness, save for the close, loving bond she shares with her son, the ex-drug user (though she keeps the paraphernalia close just in case, a fraught decision that nearly costs her greatly later on), she comes to understand that this is no way to deal with the magnitude of the ills she encounters.
This revelation is brought to bear by Adja (Babetida Sadjo), a woman from Guinea Bissau travelling on a forged French passport who is fleeing violent intimidation and threats of death for her sexuality, a brutalised environment that has already cost the life of her “angel” girlfriend.
Trapped in Iceland when Lára, training as a customs officer, spots her fake travel documents, Adja is sent through the apologetically unfeeling immigration system – everyone she encounters seems reasonably regretful that treating refugees and asylum seekers has come to this but all act as if the system is beyond their control – never treated badly but also never really considered as a person in need.
In some ways, this is always worse than outright brutality; by refusing to buck the system around them, everyone, including Lára, who to be fair needs the opportunity this job affords desperately badly, is complicit in its lack of humanity, its unwillingness to exercise empathy and see what might lie on the other side.
The rejoinder to any entreaty to empathy is to say that there is criminality at work here and it must be stopped and while this is true to some extent – the people smuggler that Adja encounters and contemplates using this is proof enough of that – this is not the whole story and reduces the truth of the matter down to a conveniently distancing simplicity that ignores the grim reality of many of these peoples’ lives.
Lára is unable to ignore these harsh realities when events conspire to throw her and Adja together in a way that goes far beyond that of customs officer and would-be asylum seeker.
In a story that is fashioned in such a way that we are given ample insight into the lives of these women apart and together, Lára is confronted again and again by Adja’s generosity of spirit, her willingness to give, share and help even when she has technically got so little.
It’s a revealing epiphany for Lára who in many ways, save her citizenship which is a powerful tool in anyone’s armoury, is just as badly off as Adja, every day a struggle for survival.
For all this bleakness however, And Breathe Normally, is a warm, tender hearted, very human delight, a reminder that we should should never judge or fear others but that we should take the time to get too know them because we never know what might be unveiled.
It may sound like simplistic moralising but it’s anything but with Uggadóttir infusing her gripping tale with the kind of raw authenticity and unvarnished humanity that makes it impossible to toss this aside as some sort of overdone morality tale.
Granted the ending is a little too poetically romantic, but you can hardly begrudge that in a film that for pretty much all its immersively-compelling running time, is captivatingly real and honest, anchored by stunningly good performances – the chemistry between all three main actors is brilliantly naturalistic and affecting – a knowing sense of how the world works but an unceasing conviction that it could all be so much better, for everyone concerned, if we could just come to understand what life is like for the people around us.