NR | 1h 32min | Documentary, Wildlife | 7 February 2023 (India)
The only documentary ever to win at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, the Indian-produced “All That Breathes” (“ATB”) did the same thing at nine other gatherings and has been nominated for a half-dozen more industry awards, including an Oscar.
Opening with a barely audible ground-level tracking shot moving at a crawl across a moonlit patch of a Delhi slum, it becomes immediately clear that “ATB” is going to be something different. This nearly three-minute scene strewn with rats, cats, dogs, pigs, frogs, various insects foraging for scraps, and the occasional fallen bird is indicative of life in 21st-century urban India. Pollution, poverty, starvation, and squalor reign supreme.
The three principals in director Shaunak Sen’s extended tone poem are half-brothers Salik Rehman and Mohammad Saud and their friend Nadeem Shehzad who are supremely dedicated to improving their world.
Barely getting by on the donations of friends, strangers, and profits from their soap dispenser business, the men are hoping that someone or something with a wide-reaching voice will alert the world of their noble endeavor, but they’re not holding their collective breath.
Every day, Salik walks the streets of Delhi collecting grounded black kites, birds of prey resembling small hawks or bald eagles. His job is easy, as the factories that belch soot and smoke into the air make it nearly impossible for the kites to sustain flight.
Salik delivers the birds to Mohammad, sometimes two dozen per day, who tends to their wounds while mending and bandaging their broken appendages and keeping them comfortable until they heal. At one point, there are 172 birds in recovery, all of them needing daily protein—something in rare supply.
Nadeem handles the paperwork, works the phones, and visits the locals for funds or donations of services, such as repairing a chest freezer storing meat that is on the fritz. The men get no help from the local vets, who refuse to tend to “nonvegetarian” animals. Remember, this is India where consumption of beef is frowned upon.
Of particular interest is Mohammad’s discovery of cigarette butts the kites salvage and place underneath their wings in an effort to repel parasites.
It’s never made clear if any of the men have a particular religious affiliation, but all subscribe to the belief in the “sawab” or “savaab,” a reward of virtue from God in the future state (afterlife) for performing meritorious acts while on earth.
While visiting their mother’s grave, Salik and Mohammad expand on this philosophy, recalling her words that also allude to the movie’s title. All things that breathe—humans, animals, vegetation, and the land—are all under God’s dominion. It’s all quite stirring and inspiring without being heavy-handed or sanctimonious.
Sen’s deliberate and measured pacing is perfectly accompanied by the ethereal and atmospheric score by Roger Goula, which frequently recalls the work of composer Vangelis in “Blade Runner,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “Missing.” It is spare, fittingly ambient, and makes great use of strings, synthesizers, and percussion.
“ATB” isn’t without a few narrative hiccups.
While walking along the bank of a river, the brothers notice a distressed kite on the other side and decide to swim across to rescue it, despite Nadeem’s objections. This passage eats away 10 minutes of valuable running time and could have had a greater impact had it been trimmed down to 90 or so seconds.
Sen also includes a handful of off-screen, out-of-focus sequences where the audio of distant and dissonant political protests is heard in the background. Some of this involves voiced opposition to the country’s refusal to allow Islamic immigrants into the country, which, while certainly thought-provoking and timely, doesn’t exactly fit in with the already established nature-nurture, spiritual narrative theme.
Luckily, the film reaches its finish on a distinctive up note, when several positive but unlikely what-if situations actually come to fruition. The brothers get a break they hadn’t counted on, and Nadeem embarks on a journey that will ultimately offer future promise to the trio’s selfless mission.
“ATB” succeeds admirably by utilizing a mostly “soft-shoe” approach while addressing a concern that will appeal to many in the beyond-the-fringe conservation crowd.
What these three men attempt to achieve is undeniably noble and inspirational. They wish to improve their tiny patch of the globe and go about it with selfless and unbridled dedication. This portion of the film alone is worth any price of admission.
Presented in subtitled Hindi and Urdu. Available on HBO Max Feb. 7.
‘All That Breathes’
Director: Shaunak Sen
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2023
Rating: 4 out of 5