Review by James Fleming
Utility bills and notices are overflowing from an apartment’s postbox. “Mommy, we forgot to get our mail yesterday. And also the day before that.” So says six-year-old Eldar at the beginning of And Breathe Normally.
Clearly, the child does not understand why his single mother, Lara, ignores their letters. Nor does he know what the “secret adventure” they are about to go on is. The truth is that Lara can no longer afford rent, and despite gaining a new job as a border guard at Keflavik airport in Iceland, they are forced to sleep in their tiny old hatchback.
Lara is a recovering addict and queer woman. Her almost impossible situation increases her difficulty in staying off drugs. Despite all her challenges, she is keen to do well at her new job. She studies hard to understand the rules and technicalities the role requires.
As a new border guard, Lara’s professionalism and eagerness to impress leads her to spot a fake passport that was missed by her colleague. Its holder is Adja, our second protagonist, a lesbian fleeing from brutal repression in Guinea-Bissau. Adja is sentenced to 30 days in prison. On release, she is brought to a detention centre for asylum seekers.
The film takes place on the desolate Reykjanes peninsula, so it’s not long before Lara and Adja come across each other again and again. Eventually, they get to know each other and understand one another’s difficulties.
The film is permeated by moments of acute stress and relief for the protagonists; losing an apartment and gaining a job for Lara, release from prison and going into a detention centre for Adja are among such moments.
We see a side of Iceland not seen in the tourist brochures. Its harsh, lonely climate underlines the vulnerability of the protagonists; Adja walking through the cold rain without cover; Eldars talking with his Mam at night in their cold car about the warm places the planes fly to and wearing shorts in Benidorm.
The film deals with many social issues: class, addiction, sexuality, sexism, racism, inequality, bureaucracy, and others. But importantly, it addresses these issues not as unrelated and separate problems, but holistically, connected as they are to social conditions and economics.
The film explores the unequal relationships of everyday life, particularly for working-class women, in a nuanced way. Examples include the interactions between boss and employee, men and women, experienced and inexperienced workers, border guards and refugees.
And Breathe Normally is an obscure gem of a film that shows that working-class people can ultimately only be saved by each other.
And Breathe Normally is currently available to watch on Netflix.