The Deepest Breath Review | Inhale, Exhale

by Andrew Parker

The Deepest Breath is a documentary that will work best among those who haven’t seen a lot of nonfiction filmmaking before. Not that this is a bad thing. There’s a clear purpose and emotional trajectory to writer-director Laura McGann’s film that makes it easy to identify just how it will connect with a larger audience. But anyone with a keen sense of how some documentaries are assembled to provide the same maximum emotional impact as a fictional film won’t get as much out of it, as The Deepest Breath is obvious in its construction and execution.

What isn’t as obvious is McGann’s chosen subject: the highly competitive and wildly dangerous world of free-diving, where swimmers will descend to tremendous depths with only a single breath and no mechanical assistance outside of a line to lead them visually back to the surface. It’s a deadly, debilitating, adrenaline fuelled pursuit that isn’t for the faint of heart, and The Deepest Breath looks primarily at two of the extreme sport’s most noteworthy figures and how their fates and lives intertwined.

From an early age, Italian diver and champion Alessia Zecchini knew exactly what she wanted to do for a living. Even before she was able to compete at a professional level, Alessia was in the pool or in the sea pushing her body to the limits every day to better live up to the standards of her biggest idol. Her pursuit of a world record setting free-dive is unflappable. On the other hand, Irish free-diver Stephen Keenan came to the sport almost by chance at the tail end of a soul searching trip across Africa. He fell in love with free-diving while in Egypt, home to the infamous Blue Hole, an underwater trench 85 feet long and 184 feet below the Red Sea that’s as deadly to divers as Mount Everest has been to climbers. Instead of continuing a pursuit of his own glories in the sport, Stephen would pivot to becoming a safety diver, an integral part of free-diving. Stephen’s job would be to make sure divers don’t die in their pursuits, especially during the most dangerous aspect of a plunge – the final ten meters before reaching the surface once again, when many participants are prone to blackouts caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.

McGann lets it be known up front that Alessia and Stephen will eventually meet and their partnership leads to something shocking, but most of The Deepest Breath is spent explaining their lives as individuals and the dangers of the sport. In its best moments, The Deepest Breath is structured like a cracking non-fiction book, bouncing back and forth between Alessia and Stephen’s individual narratives and touching upon fears, anxieties, and beliefs held by others within the free-diving community. Each of their stories are compelling before they ever meet up for the first time at a major championship competition in The Bahamas, and while this section of McGann’s film might be less compelling to a wider audience than some of the juicier, more heartrending elements that are always being hinted at, it’s the best portion of the film. McGann perceptively and intelligently builds a sense of humanity and knowledge that’s key to understanding why these people mattered to each other and everyone around them. It makes the score known perfectly, nicely explaining all that they gained and lost over the years.

But The Deepest Breath also makes it known very early on that it has a clear intent that might run afoul of its more interesting elements. After acknowledging that the film employs recreations of events and somewhat unrelated archival footage to fill in some contextual gaps, it becomes crystal clear what McGann is aiming for, and that proviso makes the stylistic and narrative choices in The Deepest Breath hard to ignore, even without advance knowledge of what happened between Keenan and Zecchini. There’s little subtlety or ambiguity to be found in The Deepest Breath, and astute viewers will likely see the film as nothing more than an elaborate staircase heading towards a foregone conclusion.

The decision to coax this material into more conventional dramatic territory makes sense, and if you don’t mind a bit of creative fabrication in your documentaries, McGann’s approach is hard to fault. The most conventionally entertaining and dramatic aspect of the story doesn’t happen until relatively late in the film, meaning McGann has to rely on everything at their disposal to keep viewers invested. The cinematography is expectedly gorgeous, and the editing of The Deepest Breath is impeccable. Without a hook, The Deepest Breath would come across as a bit dry and less crowd rousing.

At times, the fastidious pacing and narrative decisions come across like overcorrection, but that doesn’t take away from all of the solid filmmaking techniques employed by McGann. This is a film that wants to tell the story of two souls who partook in a niche sport and bring it to as many eyes as possible. One can debate the merits of the approach, but it’s hard to make the case that The Deepest Breath isn’t a good movie.

The Deepest Breath opens in select theatres on Friday, July 14, 2023, and it will be available to stream on Netflix worldwide starting Wednesday, July 19.

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