The nearly three-minute opening shot of All That Breathes is crawling with rats — their dark silhouettes like soft stones, their movements hushed by late-night traffic. They greet each other furtively, navigating a labyrinth of trash lit from above. They are stealthy and everywhere — and eerily beautiful.
Capturing an urban ecosystem in which both animals and humans must scurry to survive, Shaunak Sen’s second feature sits somewhere between a nature doc, political drama, and touching family portrait. Middle-aged brothers Nadeem and Saud rescue birds from the streets of New Delhi, devoted especially to the rehabilitation of the black kite, a carnivorous creature thought to grant sawāb, or religious credit, to those who feed it. “When they eat the meat you offer, they eat away your difficulties,” Nadeem, the more philosophical of the pair, reflects early on. “And their hunger is insatiable.”
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Difficulties in the brothers’ working-class neighborhood aren’t hard to come by: the power cuts out regularly, sewage floods the block during monsoon season, and the air is so toxic that Nadeem applies a purifier to his nostrils. In the face of such hardship, the two are all the more buoyed by their spiritual mission, transforming the garage beneath their flat into a wildlife hospital, assisted by a smiley young man named Salik.
As the rest of Delhi convulses with news of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which excludes Muslim migrants on the basis of religion, the trio’s makeshift clinic becomes a sanctuary for both patient and doctor. While his wife presses him to protest with her, Saud bandages a bird’s wing. When violence rips across Delhi’s Muslim quarters, Salik focuses on couriering injured birds across town.
Many have commented on the “apocalyptic” nature of the film’s setting — as if a heavily polluted, densely populated megacity is anything out of the ordinary in the present day. Though the paint might be peeling from the basement walls and three generations are stuffed into their flat, Nadeem and Saud are not charity cases, and Delhi is not without subtle grace. Before they receive medical care, the kites are stored in recycled Fortune-brand soy protein boxes. Saud tenderly treats one to a bubble bath; later, Salik stores a tiny marsupial in his front pocket during rickshaw rides.
Poetic moments abound in a film that relies more on voiceover and imagery than surprising plot points. Camera work consistently draws our attention to where man and bird (or man and turtle, or man and river hog) collide. Except they don’t collide, and that is the point. After a bonfire in the back of the frame illuminates humans convening from a recent protest, the focus shifts to reveal a jewel-tone caterpillar in the immediate foreground inching its way across the screen. In another shot, the camera pans slowly across a landfill to reveal a box turtle defiantly ascending the detritus.
“As a child, I’d say I want to be a bird,” Saud shares midway through, as paper kites from Delhi’s rooftops fill the white sky. “How boring it must be to just stay human.” Unlike many docs that either overtly or implicitly reinforce the good nature/bad human dichotomy, All That Breathes is profoundly empathetic toward all living kind, compelling a radical reassessment of the boundaries many imagine exist between nature and civilization, along with the boundaries we insist on building between ourselves.
All That Breathes is currently in theaters and premieres on HBO Max in 2023.