On paper, Laura McGann’s The Deepest Breath fits neatly into the recent trend of documentaries about thrill-seekers pushing it to the limit – there’s a sprinkle of Free Solo (2018) with a dash of Fire of Love (2022). The experience, however, is one of a kind.
McGann literally throws us into the deep-end from the start. Without context or explanation, we follow an unnamed athlete as she attempts a record-breaking dive. Down. Down. Down we go, past every shade of blue, until plunged into absolute darkness. Your heart will likely skip a beat from all the excitement, but not to worry; the intense, pulse-pounding score will soon get you back on track.
At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were watching the latest Mission: Impossible. This is Alessia Zecchini, freediving superstar and all round daredevil, whose life’s ambition, other than giving me a heart attack, is to break as many records as possible. Her journey to the top of the sport (and in turn, bottom of the ocean) is told in parallel to that of another adventurer, Irishman Stephen Keenan. Backpacking across jungles and deserts, his wanderlust eventually leads him to the Egyptian diving hot-spot of Dahab, where he quickly establishes himself as an elite safety coach. Cue the wettest meet-cute since Splash (1984).
In telling their stories, McGann, along with editor Julian Hart, employ a mix of archival footage, reconstruction and talking heads. The effect is a wholly immersive experience which takes you through stunning underwater photography, home movies and social media snippets. Technically seamless and meticulously researched, The Deepest Breath quickly sets itself apart from Netflix’s conveyor belt of content.
Although destined for the streaming giant, the film will enjoy a limited theatrical release in Ireland. Soak it up while you can, as this is a film for the big screen. If you thought Avatar 2 mastered The Way of Water, think again. The underwater sequences here are exquisitely-shot. The soundtrack, too – awash with wordless, ethereal vocals – conjures an otherworldly magic. “It’s like going into outer space,” notes one seasoned athlete. And then there’s the contest sequences, all of which play out like edge-of-your-seat action set pieces. It can prove a tough watch at times; as it turns out, blackouts are commonplace for resurfacing divers, resulting in twitching bodies and googly eyes.
The dangers and nuances of the sport are well-conveyed so that even a land-dweller like myself can understand. In fact, along with A24 backing the film, you really get the sense that the whole freediving community rallied behind the project. Documentaries that attempt to deepen your knowledge on niche subjects are easy to admire, and The Deepest Breath is no different. If you’re anything like me, you’ll soon find yourself diving down Youtube rabbit holes, watching the latest Static Apnea record attempt. R.I.P my algorithm.
Although all the contributors bring a full-hearted sincerity to their segments, there are times when all that goodwill clashes with the film’s sly storytelling. Of course, it’s common practice for documentaries to fiddle the narrative for dramatic effect, but with The Deepest Breath you feel they over-cranked it. The film deliberately keeps its audience in the dark, teasing out morsels of information to string us along. By the end, you can’t help but feel there might’ve been a more tactful way to tell this story.
While the questionable ethics propel the film into murky waters, its technical craft, both epic and subtle, show a filmmaker at the top of their game. McGann’s visceral brand of filmmaking will leave you gasping for air. If her debut, Revolutions (2017), marked her as one to watch, The Deepest Breath makes her impossible to ignore.
The Deepest Breath is in limited release across Irish cinemas now. Launches globally on Netflix 19th July 2023
Featured Image: Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix