The Deepest Breath


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Deepest Breath
"McGann poises her film between Stephen and Alessia’s story, rounding out the background with those who know them both and, in a nice bit of balance, both of their fathers." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A beginner’s guide to freediving mixes with personal tales of determination and heroism to gripping effect in Laura McGann’s beautifully shot documentary.

The film, which had its UK premiere at Sheffield DocFest and will arrive on Netflix in July, literally drops us in at the deep end in its opening four or so minutes as we travel in real time down into the increasingly dark ocean with a diver, who will pluck a card from a set depth before swimming back to the surface, all on a single lungful of air.

Copy picture

The sequence is at once serene and terrifying, it turns out it's not the getting down that is the issue but the getting back up where things get dangerous. Danger is foregrounded here, not just by that initial dive but also by interviews that revolve around the exceptionally driven career of Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini and free-spirited Irishman Stephen Keenan, who would become her coach and safety diver. In a noticeable bit of signposting one of them is continually spoken about in the past tense.

The film unfolds as a sort of dual character study. A man who spent his 20s being apparently defined by wanderlust, he ultimately found a home and a career for himself in the Egyptian freediving mecca of Dahab, which is home to the beautiful but deadly Blue Hole diving spot.

Although the less famous of the two, Stephen has a strong presence in the film thanks not only to the recollections of those who knew him but also video footage he shot on his travels and which is well edited into the fabric of the film by Julian Hart. The editor also deserves praise for blending re-enactment with real footage, particularly in the film’s underwater segments.

Initially, the film foregrounds Alessia’s childhood desire to be the best. Naturally talented she immediately impressed in the pool but found early success cut short when the competition age was raised to 18. This, however, didn’t stop her and she continued her pursuit of increasing time under water so that when she re-emerged on the freediving scene she was already a serious contender.

If anything, her stop-at-nothing energy is even greater than Stephen’s as she is not afraid to push the boundaries past the point of what many would regard safe. This is where safety divers come in, the souls who wait, watchful beneath the surface in order to help a freediver surface if they get into difficulty and, on what seems a worrying amount of occasions, give them the kiss of life if they black out. McGann poises her film between Stephen and Alessia’s story, rounding out the background with those who know them both and, in a nice bit of balance, both of their fathers.

Suggestion of romance between the pair seems somewhat overplayed on the evidence available and above the ocean scenes occasionally feel manipulative - particularly one in which it looks as though Alessia’s father is re-enacting a moment he watched her make a dangerous dive. But there’s no getting away from the nerve-jangling grip of this film that doesn’t put a frame wrong when it comes to depiction of the sport itself.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2023
Share this with others on...
The Deepest Breath packshot
A champion freediver and expert safety diver seemed destined for one another despite the different paths they took to meet at the pinnacle of the freediving world. A look at the thrilling rewards — and inescapable risks — of chasing dreams through the depths of the ocean.
Amazon link

Director: Laura McGann

Writer: Laura McGann

Year: 2023

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: UK

Streaming on: Netflix

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Big Vs Small
Fire Of Love
Free Solo