As someone who enjoys the cosiness of her bed more than participating in extreme activities, I frequently ask, “Why?” when it comes to the topic. Documentaries such as “The Deepest Breath” provide light on the motivations that drive people to dive free to the depths of the ocean or climb to the summits of the world’s tallest mountains. In her most recent documentary about the sport of free diving, director and playwright Laura McGann tells the story of Alessia Zecchini, an Italian free diver, and Stephen Keenan, an Irish safety diver. Both of these individuals are from Ireland.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, free diving entails entering the water without an oxygen tank, holding your breath for the entirety of the dive, and sometimes doing so without the assistance of things like flippers or monofins. If you have any questions about this activity, please feel free to contact us. Free divers can hold their breath for an absurdly long time, resist a great deal of pressure, and effectively dive to the ocean’s deepest depths. This may sound like torment to some people, but for others, it is their greatest passion.
In “The Deepest Breath,” McGann gives us a sense of the dangers associated with free diving. You may probably guess that there are a few of them. The troubles do not begin while you are still in the process of diving; rather, we discover that after a depth of approximately 30 meters, the diver reaches a state known as “free fall,” in which you are pushed down by the force of gravity.
The challenge comes when you try to claw your way back up near the water’s surface. You have to swim your way up despite the pressure of the water, and the last ten meters are the most difficult part of the journey. A thing that is both terrifying and unsettlingly regular in the sport is when experts break through the surface and instantly pass out afterwards.
Despite all of these terrifying events, The Deepest Breath introduces us to Alessia, a female free diver who is passionate about the sport and highly competitive and desperate to break the current world record for her category. She starts a conversation with Stephen, the safety diver, and the two of them soon fall in love with one another. There is clear compassion and romance between our two “protagonists,” both with their love of the sport and each other, in a manner comparable to films that Sundance has previously presented, such as Playing with the Sharks or Fire of Love. In “The Deepest Breath” demonstrates itself to be an effective storytelling method that functions quite well.
That is not to minimize the gravity of the terrible event that ultimately plays out in the documentary, yet, Stephen and Alessia provide us with a rock to cling to amid this world. We learn about the most dangerous diving site on the planet, which is located in Dahab, Egypt and is literally called the Blue Hole.
Diving the Blue Hole is considered more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, and we also learn that only one woman, Natalia Molchanova, has completed the dive. Alessia’s objective is to complete her dive in the Blue Hole and become only the second female diver to do so.
You may be tempted to compare The Deepest Breath to documentaries like Free Solo. However, whereas Free Solo suffers from a glaring absence of heart and warmth (with a subject who frequently comes across as more of a machine than a man), The Deepest Breath possesses the same level of determination. Still, the story of Alessia and Stephen is rich in life and heart. In addition, both subjects were filmed engaging in risky behaviours, as seen by the footage.
After learning that Stephen was willing to put his own life at risk to save a fellow diver (who happened to be Molchanova’s kid by coincidence), we find out that Stephen is revered as a hero in the community of freedivers. The struggle between man and environment is still present, but The Deepest Breath makes us sympathize with Alessia and desire the best for her. She has struggled mightily to achieve the unachievable, and when it is finally time for her to swim the Blue Hole, you experience the same level of apprehension that she does.
After following the journey of these two lovers for the entirety of the film, McGann puts together an emotional and terrible tale in the third act, one that hits the viewer like a punch in the gut. However, when you combine this with the breathtaking imagery of a magical underwater world, which is something that very few of us will ever be able to witness with our own eyes, there is a lot to enjoy about this.
The Deepest Breath is right up there with films like Playing with Sharks and Fire of Love because of the way it documents not only some of the most difficult and impossible things a human being is capable of doing, but also the profound connections that we can form in the unlikeliest of settings.