‘The Deepest Breath’ Review: Awe-Inspiring Underwater Footage Enhances Freediving Documentary

Sundance 2023: Director Laura McGann plays fast and loose with her storytelling, but the results are worth it

The Deepest Breath
Sundance Institute

The threat of imminent death gives a trite and morbid focus to “The Deepest Breath,” an otherwise moving documentary tribute to the record-setting Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini and her close friend, revered Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan. The best scenes, directed by Laura McGann, present freediving as a haunting and impressionistic collage of hand-held diving footage.

Zecchini and Keenan’s experiences tend to be defined by the high risks that they took whenever they plunged underwater to depths of 100+ meters. Zecchini isn’t even featured in on-camera interviews until it’s clear that she survived while Keenan did not, a narrative contrivance that says more about the makers of “The Deepest Breath” than it does their subjects.

The retrospective nature of this documentary character study requires some creative liberties, but treating one of your two main characters like a special guest in her own movie suggests that telling a better story was unfortunately the top priority here.

An introductory onscreen text warns us that while some footage was recorded by divers and safety-crew members, other scenes feature archival footage or dramatizations. There’s nothing unusual about re-enacting certain key scenes, even if that up-front warning does immediately set viewers’ expectations. McGann’s presentation of contextualizing interviews, from Alessia’s family and friends, now appears suspicious, especially the scene where Alessia’s father, Enzo, tears up while seemingly watching footage of Alessia come up for air following an intense dive.

Thankfully, most interviewees simply provide background information about the two divers and how their paths inevitably crossed. Zecchini’s colleagues and loved ones describe her animated personality, focusing on her tenacity and the extreme risks she took as a freediver. Zecchini also squeezes in archival footage when she’s asked if she ever worries about dying.

Stephen’s friends and family members testify to his clear-eyed risk-assessment skills as well as his curiosity and deep investment in helping fellow divers achieve their goals. In this light, Zecchini and Keenan’s meeting and ensuing relationship seems like a foregone conclusion.

The most compelling scenes in “The Deepest Breath” draw our attention to experiential details, mostly explained through voiceover narration and onscreen interviews. Scenes of divers climbing up and down guide ropes not only look gorgeous but also implicitly brim with suspense. There’s also some invaluable and accessible commentary from expert divers who describe diving sites like Vertical Blue in the Bahamas—home to an exclusive, invite-only diving competition that one expert compares to Wimbledon’s famous tennis tournament.

A wealth of diving footage and photos help to paint a vivid picture of the two main diving locations featured in “The Deepest Breath”: Vertical Blue, where Zecchini and Keenan first met, and “The Arch,” a treacherous Egyptian freediving destination which, because of its surrounding coral shelf, has claimed more fatalities than Mount Everest.

We also see upsetting documentary footage of divers who either experience, or are at risk of potentially lethal health conditions, especially blackouts, which can shut down a diver’s brain functions and leave them with a couple minutes to live. Emphasizing the risks that divers like Zecchini and Keenan routinely take may seem ghoulish in light of what happened to Keenan, but these scenes help to establish why the two divers bonded in the first place. Keenan’s peers say he regularly evaluated divers to determine who was most at risk for serious health risks, like vertigo- and nausea-inducing lung squeezes, which result from intense pressure on the lungs. Stephen’s initial concern for Zecchini suggests an intriguing bond that’s mostly presented as close but platonic.

In this relationship, Zecchini’s personality seems more under-developed, especially when her friend Ilaria describes Zecchini’s “very high temper” after McGann shows us video footage of Zecchini asking her social media fans to not spread rumors about her. (They said she suffered a lung squeeze.) McGann’s inclusion of new interviews and documentary footage with Japanese freediver Hankao Hirose also makes one wish Zecchini was asked directly (and on-camera) about her rivalry with Hirose. Other dangling questions about Zecchini’s motives and reputation, including what one interviewee calls “robust” criticism from internet trolls, do not get much consideration.

Then again, Zecchini and Keenan’s on-camera behavior provides a deep enough appreciation of their respective characters. More thorough follow-up questions might have made “The Deepest Breath” a richer portrait of these two inspiring athletes, but the movie’s diving footage focuses our attention on what freedivers do rather than why they do it. The movie’s best scenes feature a dreamy immediacy thanks to McGann’s combination of calm, informative voiceover narration (sometimes from unidentified sources) and disorienting but stark diving footage.

McGann’s decision to reduce Zecchini’s presence to pre-existing footage may be disappointing, but “The Deepest Breath” mostly succeeds at illustrating why both she and Keenan did what many people never could. The featured diving footage’s overwhelming beauty also justifies the sort of formulaic story beats that could have easily seemed tacky or insensitive. But McGann’s keen eye for experiential detail really puts “The Deepest Breath” over the top and effectively justifies the director’s reframing of Zecchini and Keenan’s shared story as a tragic adventure.

“The Deepest Breath” will be released later this year by A24.