Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The Deepest Breath Review: Diving Doc Could Plunge Deeper

2023 Sundance Film Festival

/
4 mins read

The Deepest Breath
(USA, 108 min.)
Dir. Laura McGann
Programme: Premieres

 

The Deepest Breath is the story of obsession, danger, and astonishing human accomplishments. It focusses on free breathers and their seemingly superhuman ability to plunge to depths for minutes at a time with a single breath.

The film concentrates on Alessia Zecchini, a young Italian free diver who pushed herself to be the best from an early age. The records in the sport vary, from laps under a pool to long vertical dives in the ocean. At each stage, she trains continuously to better her skillsets.

Stephen Keenan is equally driven, but in his case he emphasizes the development of a rescue diving skills needed by the person who facilitates those making the attempt. Most who attempt to reach the depths do so, but as with climbers to Everest, it’s the return journey that’s the most dangerous. These safety divers prevent death on a regular basis.

The opening shots see Alessia rescued from one failed attempt, her glazed look and dead eyes an unsettling entry point into what often is a quite stunningly beautiful film. The contrast between the lure of the depths and real human toil provides The Deepest Breath with much of the drama. While McGann’s film teases with the tale for those that don’t know what transpire, the result is certainly both exhilarating and engaging.

The Deepest Breath doesn’t quite live up to its title when trying to make sense of the individuals involved, although Stephen’s journey certainly seems a bit more altruistic than Alessia’s naked competitiveness. Outside of the broad competitions that presumably assist with fame and finance, it’s the habit of doing dangerous dives “just because” that seem all the more reckless from the outside.

McGann’s film sometimes asks questions that cannot be answered. At other times, things go unasked, leaving the audience to flounder a bit in trying to make sense why certain things were allowed to play out the way they did in the first place, a lack of preparation and professionalism that seems both out of character and out of context that ends in deadly effect.

Along with the way, we’re treated to what mostly feels like glowing praise for those involved, with any stubbornness or self-harm chalked up to the competitive drive. In contrast to last year’s Maya and the Wave, where a similarly driven subject’s mythmaking was contrasted by interviewees who slammed that subject’s recklessness and naïveté, we don’t really get a sense here of Alessia and Stephen’s journey other than from sympathetic friends and family members. This is not to say the film doesn’t attempt to provide objective telling, nor does every tale need contrasting drama, but given the intricacies of this story, it’s frustrating that there’s little in the way of context other than from participants who clearly continue to put the most positive of spins on the situation.

Visually stunning, The Deepest Breath will expose many to this extreme form of human endurance. Given that the likes of the latest Avatar blockbuster incorporate free diving elements, it’s clear there’s a hunger to live vicariously through such endeavours. While the telling of Stephen and Alessia’s story is a sometimes superficial one, there’s still enough moments that plunge into the deeper depths and allow viewers to experience the rush of the journey into the abyss.

 

The Deepest Breath premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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