Film Review – The Deepest Breath
The Deepest Breath
The Deepest Breath (2023) begins with an extraordinary uncut shot. We see a deep sea diver submerge under the water, heading straight down. Following a single line of rope, they descend deeper, deeper, and deeper still – with the camera never looking away. Safety personnel and rescue boats disappear. Sunlight transitions into an ominous dark blue, as the diver’s world becomes isolated. Then, after minutes on end, they reach the bottom of the rope and immediately head back up. Up, up and up they go, trying to get back before they run out of oxygen and black out. We hold our breaths as well, leaning closer to see if they will make it to the surface in one piece.
Director Laura McGann’s documentary is harrowing in how it sheds light on deep sea diving. It is considered one of the deadliest extreme sports in the world, where the slightest mistake can lead to disaster. And yet, we see many participate in competitions year round, trying to see who can go a little bit further into the depths. It’s the kind of mentality we see all the time. People want to test their boundaries, physically and mentally, to prove what is capable when fear is not part of the equation. It’s the same kind of thinking that allowed Alex Honnold to climb El Capitan without a safety rope in Free Solo (2018), or what pushed lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft to explore active volcanoes in Fire of Love (2022).
It takes a certain fortitude to take on such a risky endeavor. That is the make up of our main subjects, Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini. Combining archival footage, social media posts, videos taken during dives, re-enactments, and traditional interviews, McGann paints a picture of Keenan and Zecchini as their lives inevitably cross paths. Keenan was a world traveler from Ireland who found his calling in the ocean, eventually becoming a renowned safety diver. For Zecchini, she was inspired by Natalia Molchanova – one of the greatest deep sea divers to ever live. Zecchini would go on to be a world champion diver herself, longing to break the records Molchanova set. Keenan and Zecchini would meet during a competition in the Bahamas, where he would end up becoming her trainer.
Much like Fire of Love, McGann structures The Deepest Breath to not only capture the high and lows of diving, but as a romance between Keenan and Zecchini. She allows plenty of footage to show how that narrative plays out. Keenan and Zecchini captured endless videos, vlog posts, and photographs of their adventures, and the editing (Julian Hart) ties them together as parallel arcs. It’s as though the two were common souls on a collision course toward one another. There’s only a handful of people that truly understand their perspective – why diving the length of a seventy story building and then swimming all the way back up can be so rewarding. That’s why Keenan and Zecchini were drawn to one another. In contrast, one of the running talking head interviews features the fathers of both, and how each had to learn to let their child go to pursue their calling.
On the flip side, the doc contains some truly terrifying moments. To be a champion diver means subjecting oneself to punishing physical demands. The deeper one dives, the more water pressure is put upon their bodies. We learn of something called “lung squeeze,” where the pressure is so intense that a person’s lungs shrink to the size of a fist. While diving down is tough, it’s the journey back that is truly life-threatening, where having to swim up saps a person’s oxygen exponentially. It’s explained that most accidents (and deaths) happen within ten meters of the surface, where the body and brain simply shuts down. Emphasis is put on the safety teams and the lengths they go to make sure divers return safely, even if it means putting themselves at risk. These sequences were admittedly tough to watch. Several times, the camera captures someone carried above water, their eyes glazed over as if in a trance, with everybody trying to get them to breathe again.
There’s a sense of melancholy running all throughout the film. Because McGann chooses to highlight the tremendous risks of these dives, we can’t help but anticipate that something terrible will happen to either (or both) Keenan and Zecchini. In that way, a sense of dread creeps along the edges, like warning signs letting us know what’s to come. Divers painted as small silhouettes against an overwhelming sea of blue is a constant reminder of how close to death they are. This element will either make or break the audience. On one hand, it can be argued that the production came into this project as to celebrate the sport and all those that partake in it. On the flip side, some might maintain that the narrative structure hooks us in through the negative side of the sport. We become engaged not to see Zecchini become a champion and achieve her goals but to simply survive. I’m more in the belief of the prior, but I can see how some might be turned off.
A quick internet search will reveal the ultimate fates of both Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini. In the end, however, The Deepest Breath works because of how they found one another, how they supported and believed in the other’s ambitions, and how their spirits connected in perfect harmony. The film is not just an examination of an extreme sport, but an exploration of two people learning to live for themselves and each other.