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Sundance 2023 Review: The Deepest Breath – “A stunningly shot documentary.”

Alessia Zecchini appears in a still from The Deepest Breath by Laura McGann, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Deepest Breath opens with freediver Alessia Zecchini being asked about her thoughts on death.  She is not phased by the question.  “If one has to die, it’s going to happen,” she replies, adding that she’s not scared of death.  And certainly, for her sport, she can’t be.  For Alessia, there is no stopping until she is the best, and when you are pushing those limits, that’s when things become the most dangerous.

Director Laura McGann takes us behind the scenes of what it means to be a championship freediver.  She does this by weaving together the stories of Alessia as well as Stephen Keenan.  For Alessia, she wanted to be a freediver from the time she was in high school, for Stephen it was found as a part of an adventure.  Keenan spent much of his young adulthood traveling through places like the Congo and Ethiopia before ending up in the seaside town of Dahab, Egypt, renowned for its diving and home to the Blue Hole.  This natural phenomenon houses an underwater archway that is the ultimate accomplishment for a freediver.  With grave markers adorning the shoreline above, it’s also the most dangerous.

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Freediving is an extreme sport in every sense of the word.  It involves swimming and diving as far as you can in one single breath.  While Zecchini starts her training in the much safer waters of a swimming pool, her ultimate goal is to dominate the sport in the open sea, just like her idol Natalia Molchanova.  She was the first woman ever to successfully dive ‘the arch.’

With dives of over 100 metres in depth, these athletes battle against extreme pressure, both from the water itself and psychologically.  Most accidents happen within the last ten metres of ascent when the body is depleted of oxygen.  Blackouts are common.  Official competitions have well-trained medical staff on hand and safety divers in the water to assist when needed.  But only freedivers can help other freedivers.  Scuba divers have to ascend much more slowly.  After setting an Irish record for free diving, Keenan opens a training centre and becomes a well-respected safety diver.  This is how he and Zecchini meet.  The connection is instant, their bond everlasting.

Almost a cross between Fire of Love and Free SoloThe Deepest Breath looks at an extreme athlete and the impact her sport has on those around her.  Not just in her relationship with Stephen, but with others in both of their lives, family and friends.  Both Zecchini and Keenan have deep commitment to freediving, just in different aspects.  Zecchini is there to be the best, Keenan is there to help her do that safely.  Together, they trained her to do what only one woman had done before, the Blue Hole arch.

From the start, McGann is very good at bringing tension and suspense into her film.  Not just from the initial talk of death with Zecchini, though certainly that already sets the stakes very high, but also in the first dive itself.  She revels in the quietness of the underwater world, leaving us only with the sound of Zecchini’s heartbeat as she holds her breath and descends.  On her way back to the surface the beating quiets and slows, almost to the point of stopping.  It’s an alarming moment, one that made me, quite frankly, hold my own breath.

There is a looming sense of dread over these two divers that persists throughout that film and that’s because McGann never divulges how this monumental arch dive turns out until pretty well the very end.  The reveal is quite a shocking moment after spending the length of the film in constant wonder.  And it works.  Mostly.  But, structuring the film this way also constrains the way McGann can tell the story, not being able to use any present-day interviews with the subjects to keep the conclusion secret.  We lose out on more insight from the subjects themselves, relying on family and friends to flesh out the details of their lives.

The Deepest Breath is a stunningly shot documentary.  The underwater visuals as these divers plunge into the depths of the ocean are pretty incredible.  The lives of Zecchini and Keenan are certainly gripping, though their love story and connection is not well fleshed out, being told from outside perspective.  However, this was always about the diving and the danger.  While always compelling and an excellent watch, one comes away feeling like there was a little more to dive into here about the motivations and the psychology of the people themselves.  Instead of going head first into the depths, it rises to the surface just a little early, constrained by the bounds it has set on itself.

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