When it comes to entertainment, we’re a suggestible species. Cooking shows make us salivate. Musicals make us hum along. I’ve been known to randomly cheer (and/or cry) when watching an underdog sports story.
Be very careful when watching Laura McGann’s Netflix and A24 documentary The Deepest Breath. This chronicle of the precarious, haunting and near-mystical world of freediving will make you want to join the competitors in breath-holding as you follow their journeys to aquatic depths. You’ll want to. You may not be able to resist. But you should probably resist. The freedivers? Well, they should also probably resist, but The Deepest Breath fits into a recent tradition of documentaries about extreme athletes whose commitment to events in which death is an accepted consequence beggars common sense, if not belief.
The Deepest Breath
The Bottom Line
An unusual love story that isn’t for the faint of heart or short of breath.
In the most literal sense, The Deepest Breath is a breathtaking documentary, one filled with eye-popping visuals, thrilling competitions and a deftly presented love story. Even though the doc’s storytelling has an approach to twistiness that I’m finding increasingly irritating every time it’s used, the sheer volume of visceral responses produced by The Deepest Breath is hard to deny. Think Free Solo in descent, with shades of last year’s Sundance hit Fire of Loveand you’ll have a sense of the nervous and occasionally exhilarating rush that accompanies this film.
Before we even know her name or the event she’s participating in, The Deepest Breath introduces us to freediver Alessia Zecchini. In the Bahamas and on her way to an attempted record-breaking dive, Alessia is asked about the prospect of death in her sport of choice. She laughs and talks about fate, but five minutes later, after one of the most photogenic plunges this side of Luc Besson’s The Big Blueshe’s pulled to the surface, eyes rolled back into her head, receiving emergency CPR.
This, the documentary eventually reveals, isn’t all that uncommon in freediving, a sport in which blackouts are commonplace and safety divers are so essential they attain a level of celebrity comparable to that of the divers they’re protecting.
McGann builds the film around two parallel biographies. Young, beautiful and driven, Alessia has known she wanted to be a freediver since she was a kid, drawn by the allure of the sea and by the record-breaking celebrity of Russian freediver Natalia Molchanova. Stephen Keenan is a man in search of purpose, eventually making his way to the Egyptian diving Mecca of Dahab, home of the notorious and notoriously deadly Blue Hole. After breaking Irish records with his own diving, he became a safety diver.
Carefully edited by Julian Hart to foreshadow but not spoil, the documentary is heading towards an intersection of our heroes — and it’s heading towards something ominous. Peppered throughout are explanations of the nuances of the sport, well enough conveyed that total neophytes will be able to understand both strategies and objectives, and repeated warnings that even the most regulated of contests with the most trained of divers can lead to tragedy. There’s a pivotal contest in which Alessia has blackouts on three straight days, and that’s just normal.
It’s a sport that is remarkably good at documenting itself, and although Tim Cragg is the credited cinematographer, the documentary is composed of footage shot by more underwater photographers and above-water social media chroniclers than I could count. You may not fully understand why Alessia and Stephen do what they do, any more or less than you understood Alex Honnold’s desire to scale sheer cliffs without ropes or harnesses, but the footage catches Alessia and Stephen in so many different forms of jubilation and desolation that you can at least empathize with the extremes they crave. Nainita Desai’s sweeping score drowns out any remaining viewer uncertainty, although McGann is very careful to deliver the underwater scenes with no music at all — just breathing, heartbeats and otherworldly silence.
Throughout The Deepest Breath, you know that the film you’re watching isn’t going to resolve in two people happily playing with puppies in a field and going, “Man, that was a crazy thing we did for a couple of years!” But you aren’t sure what is coming, and given that the documentary is destined for Netflix, the hope is presumably that the almost balletic gracefulness of Alessia and her peers, the hermetically sealed darkness that comes from being 100+ meters beneath the surface, the attempts at aural and visual immersion will be so complete that you won’t be distracted enough to ask Google to spoil the movie for you.
I saw The Deepest Breath in a theater and felt ample immersion and ample distraction, yet I still felt the discomfort of the manipulated narrative. I understand that with lots of movies I like, including Free Solo, the directors know the end of a story and they employ sleight of hand to keep viewers in the dark — devices from questionable chronology to talking heads using circuitous verb tenses to straight-up withholding of information, which are all on display here. It’s right on the edge of gross, and I can’t avoid thinking of the family members someday watching a documentary that uses the worst (or best… no spoilers here) moment in their lives for a “gotcha” cinematic surprise.
But the craftsmanship that drives The Deepest Breath is so effective that I was ultimately left with a well-rendered catharsis instead of ickiness. And even in my discomfort, I’m not sure what I’d have wanted McGann to do differently. It’s a reservation, not a condemnation of a largely potent and beautiful film.
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