THE STORY – Descending to remarkable depths below the sea in one single breath, Alessia Zecchini enters what she describes as the last quiet place on Earth. The Italian champion is determined to set a new world record in freediving, a dangerous extreme sport in which competitors attempt to reach the greatest depth without the use of scuba gear. Freedivers are often subject to blackouts upon ascent, necessitating the help of safety divers like Stephen Keenan, a free-spirited Irish adventurer who fell in love with the sport in Dahab, Egypt. Having formed a special bond on the freediving circuit, Alessia and Stephen train together to make an attempt on Dahab’s legendary Blue Hole and its challenging 85-foot-long tunnel 184 feet below the Red Sea, their fates inextricably bound together.
THE CAST – Alessia Zecchini
THE TEAM – Laura McGann (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
It’s interesting to get into the head of those who gravitate toward dangerous sports. While most of us never want to imagine free solo climbing Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, Alex Honnold couldn’t resist the thrill of climbing the famed 900-meter vertical rock. High-wire artists Philippe Petit and Nik Wallenda also managed to make an already dangerous activity even more thrilling by crossing the Twin Towers and the Grand Canyon, respectively.
Laura McGann introduces us to yet another extreme athlete in “The Deepest Breath.” With stunning underwater cinematography and gripping sequences that will literally make you hold your breath, McGann dives head-first into a fascinating sport that captivates audiences from the start. There are questionable storytelling choices made at times that keep us from fully embracing the subjects and their stories here, but it’s still a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed once it’s available on Netflix.
The main subject of “The Deepest Breath” is Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini, who has been attracted to the sport from a young age. How anyone could ever find appeal in a sport that requires the human body to plunge 100 meters below the surface in a single breath is a mystery. And that first-hand account is lacking, as we don’t get much screen time with the woman herself. But talking heads, like her father Enzo, as well as archival footage, give us insight into how she quickly became obsessed with pushing herself to reach deeper depths. Even with plenty of roadblocks along the journey, like having to wait until she was 18 to compete professionally and facing rivals who were just slightly better than her, she never stopped believing she could achieve her dreams. Her goal was to break as many records as possible, and the documentary shows just that as it follows her journey to break the Vertical Blue freediving competition record. Editor Julian Hart gives us exciting sequences that show Zecchini and Japanese freediver Hanako Hirose going head to head in trying to beat each other.
Zecchini makes freediving look so effortless and easy, gliding along the sturdy rope that gets harder and harder to see the deeper you descend. The hypnotic cinematography by Tim Cragg, who makes the darkest parts of the water illuminate so beautifully, adds to the dreamy sequences. But McGann constantly shows us things that can go bad in an instant. Freedivers are often subject to blackouts upon ascent, and the Italian diver is seen struggling with this during competitions and training, and safety trainers need to act quickly. The sport can also claim lives – one of the most famous divers, Natalia Molchanova, disappeared under the surface in 2015.
Along with Zecchini’s story, we’re introduced to a safety diver and her eventual trainer, Stephen Keenan. As we learn through more talking head interviews and archival footage (though there is a reason for his absence), he was a restless soul who felt stuck in life until he discovered freediving in Egypt. When you’re underwater, you can only focus on the task at hand, which helped him when he was struggling to cope with his mother’s death. An accomplished diver himself, he eventually opened a freediving school in Egypt, where he met and bonded with Zecchini during the Vertical Blue competition.
Based on how people talk about the two divers throughout the documentary, we can assume tragedy is in the cards. The tale eventually leads to 2017 training, where Zecchini attempted to complete the Blue Hole Arch, a notoriously dangerous and deadly dive. Interviews from the people who were there, along with archival and recreated footage, vividly recount that day and the panic that ensued with a few crucial mishaps. It’s edited and told in a way where you aren’t sure what the outcome will be until the answer comes crashing through the surface. Some may be bothered by how the sequence is handled and think it’s cruel, while others might be swept away in the drama of it all.
Regardless, “The Deepest Breath” is still a thrilling documentary that will intrigue viewers with the world of freediving. While we might not try holding our breath for several minutes at a time – we’ll leave that to the professionals and “Avatar: The Way of Water” actor Kate Winslet – we gain a deeper appreciation for this dangerously skillful sport by experiencing its highs and lows with one of its best athletes.