Directed by Karl Markovics. Starring Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann Club, IFI, Dublin, 94 min

AT 19, ROMAN (Thomas Schubert) already wears the cold stare of a lifelong repeat offender. His regimented life – the children’s home, a youthful murder and then juvenile hall – is established in a strip, spread and cough sequence. It’s a routine we’ll see many times as the teenager ventures out on day release to his job in a morgue.

If Roman can cope with an aversion toward corpses and ignore the taunts of colleague Rudolf (Gerhard Liebmann, terrific), the kid may actually make parole. Slowly but surely, Roman enters the world beyond institutionalisation. He looks for the woman who abandoned him in childhood, learns how to deal with conflict, and even starts to face up to what he has done. But is he truly rehabilitated? And will others give him a chance?

Austrian cinema, of late, has frequently visited the twin themes of crime and punishment. The Viennese actor Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters) makes his directorial debut with this similarly minded riveting drama. Superficially at least, Breathing seems to belong to the same burgeoning and impressive sub-genre that gifted us Michael and The White Ribbon. It’s austere. It’s socio-realistic. It’s Austrian.

Roman is just a kid with a crummy back-story trying to find his way back into a society that’s often more heartless than he could ever muster. Markovics wants us to stay onside with our haunted, put- upon hero. He’s even prepared to use a bird trapped in a room as a visual reference to underline the point. It’s not subtle, but it works in a film that’s otherwise constructed in thoughtful vérité.

Beneath the natural rhythms, there’s a surprising urgency and vigour to Roman’s inner turmoil. Newcomer Schubert was picked from a street casting and has already scored multiple awards for his remarkable, often wordless performance in the lead role. Scenes depicting the kid finding his equally damaged mother or asking the gruff Rudolf for help with a tie are heartbreaking. But Breathing’s trajectory leaves us to believe that this particular bird will, perhaps, somehow, find a way out.