Heart-stopping documentary about the exhilarating and dangerous sport of freediving

The Deepest Breath

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘The Deepest Breath’

Dir. Laura McGann. US/UK. 2023. 108mins.

Most people watching The Deepest Breath – on Netflix, eventually – will know there is such a thing as freediving, and that it is dangerous, but they won’t be aware of precisely how this extreme sport is executed. Laura McGann, making her feature doc debut, spends the first four or so heart-stopping minutes of her film showing a dangerous dive in detail. Finely attuned editing by Julian Hart ensures the pulse barely recovers for the rest of the piece.

The excitement of pushing your body to these lengths against nature is palpable

The Deepest Breath is a nerve-shredding experience. McGann’s astute assemblage captures the liquid danger of the dark depths. The edit gives a spiralling sense of the inevitable, underlined by Nainita Desai’s insistent score. And everything bounces off the characters involved: two people who seem genetically programmed to push themselves to the limits.  There’s an artificial narrative structure here which hinges on the fate of these two athletes – we can sense almost from the start that at least one may not survive – but being able to spot the building blocks doesn’t make the finished film any less impressive. 

Awards will surely come calling for Irish national McGann’s film, an A24 production (with Motive and John Battsek’s Ventureland) which premiered in Sundance and makes its European bow at CPH: DOX. The question of why these sportsmen and women persevere in the face of death is never fully answered – much like 2013’s The Crash Reel, to which it is related, and there’s a similar sense of youthful invincibility here too. How they do it, though, is laid out in immersive detail as divers swim further and further down to the darkness using nothing but their own breath. 

It’s coming back up, though, that may kill them.

These 100+metre plus dives are professionally and comprehensively captured by the international freediving community itself, giving McGann an impressive amount of footage to choose from, alongside work by the main credited cinematographer Tim Cragg. This is all blended with family footage to tell a story of two free spirits. 

Alessia Zecchini is shown as a preternaturally talented child underwater swimmer in Italy. Forced to wait until she is old enough to legally compete in international freediving competitions, she is the very embodiment of a determined sportswomen: aggressive and, occasionally reckless in the pursuit of her goals (blacking out three times in the chase for one record).

Her story is juxtaposed with that of Irish nomad Stephen Keenan, again using family photographs, home videos, and the recollections of a loving parent. Once a diver himself, Keenan establishes a school in Dahab, Egypt, close to the deadly Blue Hole, and works as an expert safety diver at the International competitions. When Alessia and Stephen meet, it’s an immediate match of the personal and professional (although the film does skirt the question of exactly how personal).

McGann roams all over the world as Alessia chases down her goal at the 2017 Vertical Blue championship — the Bahamas, Mexico, and Egypt all figure. Friends and colleagues contribute in talking heads footage. Zecchini is trying to smash the records of Russian freediver Natalia Molchanova, and Stephen is helping her realise those goals. As she descends time after time into the black depths, the soundtrack stops and we’re reminded that Molchanova never came back from her last dive. 

McGann’s narrative construction is admittedly forced: she avoids contributions from the couple in the present-day, all in the pursuit of a shock ending. The fact that it’s still a terrifying experience to watch is testament to the skill of the production but also the sheer thrill of the chase we are watching. It may not be something you’d ever consider attempting, but the excitement of pushing your body to these lengths against nature is palpable.

And, technically, it’s just about flawless. Although The Deepest Breath is due for release on Netflix later on this year, it’s one of the ultimate big-screen experiences that is worth seeking out should the chance arise.

Production companies: A24, Motive Films, Ventureland

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: John Battsek, Sarah Thomson, Jamie D’Alton, Anne McLaughlin

Cinematography: Tim Cragg

Editing: Julian Hart

Music: Nainita Desai