A memorable portrait of two women

‘And Breathe Normally’ tells an international story of friendshi

And Breathe Normally (photo credit: Courtesy)
And Breathe Normally
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Movies about the struggles of migrants have become a kind of new genre and the new Icelandic film, Ísold Uggadóttir’s And Breathe Normally, is an engrossing and well observed example of this.
Like several other films in this category, notably Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope and Le Havre, as well as the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, the film explores the connections and intersections between the lives of asylum seekers from the Third World and impoverished Europeans. It doesn’t question the fact that the migrants are fleeing a starker fate than that which the Europeans face, but it acknowledges, in a very effective and touching way, the kinship among those who don’t know for sure how they will pay their rent or buy their next meal.
And Breathe Normally, which won the directors’ prize in the World Cinema dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, tells the story of a brief but intense friendship that forms between a broke, lonely Icelandic single mother, Lara (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), struggling to put her drug problem behind her and raise her son Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) in a stable environment, and Adja (Babetida Sadjo), a young woman from Guinea-Bissau who is detained for trying to leave Iceland and travel to Canada on a fake passport.
Lara has just gotten a job in passport control at the airport and it is she who flags Adja’s passport as being forged. The job is a lifeline for Lara and she wants to do it well, although the bureaucratic delay in getting her first salary means she can’t pay her rent and she and Eldar have to live out of her car. But she feels responsible for Adja and when she and Adja meet by chance after Adja is released from a short stay at a detention center, the two form a bond. Although Adja has almost nothing, faces persecution and poverty in her home country and has been separated from her sister and daughter, she actually helps Lara and her son, letting them sleep in her tiny room in a halfway house for refugees awaiting deportation. They speak about their lives, and Lara shows Adja around the bleak rural area where she lives, which is ringed by beautiful mountain landscapes.
Desperate, Adja explores every alternative to deportation, including the dangerous gambit of trying to stow away on a cargo ship.
Eventually, in a moment of grace, Lara is able to repay the kindnesses that Adja has shown to her and Eldar.
This description may make the movie sound overly neat and formulaic, but Uggadóttir is a natural and graceful storyteller, gently and gradually painting a memorable portrait of these two women, who outwardly are so different – an Icelandic passport agent and an African migrant – but who are separated only by superficial realities.
The performances by the two actresses make this film wonderful. Haraldsdóttir, who has the most screen time as Lara, makes this portrayal of this isolated young woman memorable and achingly real. It would seem that in a country like Iceland, there would be social services available to Lara and her son, but the actress makes it believable that Lara, a former drug addict, could have fallen between the cracks and could be unable to reach out and get the help that she needs. Sadjo, an actress born in Guinea who now works mainly out of Belgium, doesn’t have many lines, but she manages to make each word and gesture count. The two actresses have to inhabit their roles with utter conviction to make their friendship come to life and both of them are up to that challenge.

And Breathe Normally
tells a story that could easily have been overly didactic and preachy, but instead it finds the humanity and reality behind the headlines and statistics about migrants and the poor to tell an moving and involving story.