Without Air Review: A Meek Hero on the Ramparts

In her feature film debut, Katalin Moldovai introduces us to Ana, a progressive literature and drama teacher in the beautifully shot yet emotionally charged Without Air. The film highlights the issue of political influence in education while focusing on a teacher’s unwavering dedication, and is based on true events.

Moldovai uses a framing device, and opens with Ana, played with stunning realism by Ágnes Krasznahorkai, asking her students to close their eyes and visualize the letter “O.” This exercise, used throughout the film, is both a mindfulness technique and a creative exercise that sets Ana apart as a teacher who deeply cares for her students’ emotional well-being and imagination.

Set in an unnamed small town in Romania, the historical Balassi High School is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary and is waiting for municipal funds to renovate its tiny gym. Ana’s life is already challenging; her boyfriend, Botond, is working in the UK to save money, and she cares for her elderly mother, who shows early signs of Alzheimer’s.

However, the real conflict erupts when a right-wing, hyper-conservative parent complains about Ana recommending Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse—a film about Arthur Rimbaud – in class. This parent, a well-connected political figure, believes the movie is inappropriate due to its homosexual themes. His son, Viktor, secretly passionate about literature and acting, is caught between his father’s rigid expectations and his own artistic dreams.

Without Air

Source: IMDB

Ana’s once harmonious work life at Balassi quickly unravels. The beloved teacher becomes a „best to be sacrificed” figure as colleagues distance themselves to avoid repercussions. Despite this, Ana maintains her gentle determination, refusing to accept unjust punishment. She files against the proposed temporary reprimand, leading to internal investigations and student questionnaires that only add to the chaos. On a side note: I believe it would be socially beneficial to focus more stories on heroes like her, who fight with mature gentleness and light,

The film’s title, Without Air, gradually becomes a powerful metaphor. As Ana’s life suffocates under the pressure of scrutiny, she smokes more, jogs with difficulty, and literary grasps for air. At the very beginning of the film, a taxidermied bear—symbolic of lost vitality—is moved eerily from one classroom to another as Ana moves down the hallway. It is a nice foreshadowing of what’s to come.

In another emotionally charged scene, a student recites Attila József’s poem “I Can’t Breathe,” capturing the pressure felt by both teachers and students. Moldovai’s direction shines through these allegorical choices, creating a narrative that’s a cry for justice and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit – similarly to Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge and Gábor Reisz’s Explanation for Everything. Probably, it is no coincidence that these movies all came out relatively at the same time.
The cinematography by Norbert Köbli is airy and pristine, using sunlight and natural beauty to contrast the growing darkness in Ana’s life. The music, initially uplifting, loses its vibrancy and ability to support the telling of the story as the plot progresses. The script, unfortunately, loses some coherence and rhythm midway, with a few questionable plot twists that muddy the narrative.

Despite these flaws, the film’s strengths are undeniable. Krasznahorkai’s hyper-naturalistic performance anchors the film, supported by a strong ensemble cast. The compositions—occasionally reminiscent of Bergman—are striking, whether it is the head of the school in front of her office mirror as Ana enters or Ana smoking in hiding with a colleague.

Without Air, co-written by Moldovai and Zita Palóczi during the COVID lockdown, strikes a chord with contemporary, global audiences. It portrays a divided society where fear and power overshadow justice and integrity. The film asks a crucial question: Are we brave enough to raise our voices against injustice and for our children, even if this bravery comes at a high cost.

Without Air is a thought-provoking and relevant film that, despite its imperfections, will leave you contemplating on integrity, political interference and power struggle in our current climate.

Without Air is now available on Netflix.

~ by Dora Endre ~