Jack Murphy inhales Laura McGann’s powerful feature The Deepest Breath.
The medium of documentary allows filmmakers and audiences to dive head-first into stories that are larger than life; stories that if translated into a screenplay might be too heightened or sensationalist. Such are the intertwining stories of Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini, the two free divers at the centre of our story. Director Laura McGann’s impressive new documentary, The Deepest Breath, comes from acclaimed independent studio A24 and global streaming juggernaut Netflix. Through McGann’s direction, this story becomes anything but sensationalist. Even with the contrivances expected in a documentary of this ilk, this is a thrilling story brought to the screen with style.
The film opens on a recording of one of Zecchini’s dives. The deep blues, the ocean’s sounds are captured in breathtaking detail and heart-pounding intensity. From a young age, people were questioning her unusual career aspirations. Yet she dreamt of becoming a professional free diver, having idolised Russian diver Natalia Molchanova since childhood. The Deepest Breath’s early moments provide an intriguing insight into Zecchini’s childhood and career, along with all the trials and tribulations that come with participating in such a dangerous sport. Meanwhile, Irish explorer-turned-diver Stephen Keenan’s adjacent journey is also explored. After a devastating loss, he travels through North Africa to his eventual arrival in Dahab, Egypt (the so-called “Mecca for divers”). Unpacking the relationship between Zecchini and Keenan, McCann paints a warm and intimate picture of the pair. This film echoes the explosive romance between Katia and Maurice Krafft, the focus of Sara Dosa’s 2022 documentary Fire of Love.
For those unfamiliar with free diving, The Deepest Breath spares no time in explaining the fundamentals of what is known as one of the most dangerous extreme sports in the world. One mistake could potentially cost you your life. Through archival footage and recreations of key moments in the careers of both divers, the grand scale and stakes are made clear. From idyllic cobalt waves to terrifying darkness, the underwater visuals on display are otherworldly. Even the archival footage possesses a cinematic quality that immerses you in the action. McCann crafts an immensely satisfying portrait of the sport as a whole, with a wide array of characters and talking heads providing accounts of vital events, from Zecchini’s past opponents in competitions, to Keenan’s friends and family.
While structure is where The Deepest Breath is safe and familiar, the strong emotional core is where this film stands out from other documentaries. Using suspense as we get to the heart of these driven divers creates a wonderful sense of turmoil – there’s no relief until the credits roll. This is a film so honest, thrilling and emotionally charged, you will be left equal parts speechless and breathless.
The Deepest Breath is in cinemas from 14th July 2023 and is available to stream on Netflix now.