There are several key differences between “The Deepest Breath” and “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winning extreme sports documentary to which Laura McGann’s similarly harrowing and exultant non-fiction film begs — but only somewhat deserves — comparison.
To begin with the most obvious: One film is about climbing without a rope, while the other is about diving without a tank. On a slightly more nuanced level, one plays like a queasy tribute to a thrill-seeker who reached his peak despite meeting the love of his life, while the other unfolds like a heartsick elegy for a couple of athletes whose luck may have run out just after they found each other. Both of these films are suspenseful enough to leave you gasping for air, and both of them hinge on the acute recognition that — despite the isolation of their respective sports, and the abject lack of tangible support that participating in them demands — not even the world’s most gifted athletes are able to defy gravity on their own.
But where “Free Solo” invites us to share in its palpable sense of real-time relief, “The Deepest Breath” keeps us at a distance by teasing out its ultimate tragedy, contriving shallow intrigue at the expense of its potential depth. And that feeds into the most critical difference of all: One of these docs is haunted by the question of why its subject won’t stay on the ground, while the other limits itself to focusing on why one (or both) of its subjects couldn’t make it back up to the surface.
In fairness to McGann’s film, the story of what happened to Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan on that fateful day off the coast of Egypt is riveting enough to withstand some of the frustrations provoked by the way it’s told here. There’s a powerful symmetry to how these two people crossed paths and eventually — potentially — began to fall in love, and “The Deepest Breath” lays it out with the clarity of Bahamian seawater.
As a child in Italy, Zecchini was embarrassed by what she wanted to be when she grew up. After all, becoming the first woman to dive 100 meters under the surface of the ocean without the help of scuba gear… well, she knew that it made her sound like a silly kid girl with a sunken dream. But Zecchini knew what she was born to do, and with the encouragement of her father — who recognized the seriousness of his young daughter’s conviction — she was only 18 years old when she set her first world record in the deadly sport that had long been declared as her calling.
By contrast, bright-eyed Irishman Stephen Keenan spent roughly three decades trying to silence his restless spirit before he finally discovered “the last quiet place on Earth” just below the surface of its oceans. He was nothing if not a searcher, but a few days with the diving community at Dahab’s notoriously dangerous “Blue Hole” was all it took for him to feel as if he found the place where he belonged. From the wistful tone that McGann’s talking heads adopt whenever they speak about Keenan (his loving father, most of all), we can infer that he met his destiny there in more ways than one, but “The Deepest Breath” spends the brunt of its time focusing on the lives that Keenan saved as the world’s top rescue diver — and, in Zecchini’s case, the lives that he changed in the process of doing his job.
Here, the pride that Keenan took in that work is as striking as the footage that shows what that work entailed. McGann’s film leaves us with an extremely detailed sense of what happens to the human body after swimming the length of two full skyscrapers underwater in a single breath. McGann’s film starts us with that, too, as Zecchini blacks out in the opening scene. Her eyes bulge open. Spotters pull her to the neck by the surface and breathe life back into her lungs — lungs that have constricted to the size of fists. It’s an awful spectacle each of the half-dozen times we see it, and made all the more jarring by how violently it clashes with the serenity of the dives themselves (which include seamlessly interwoven recreations when needed).
The best divers push themselves to the brink of asphyxiation so often that we’re almost surprised when they don’t need help on the surface. In fact, it would appear that Zecchini and Keenan’s first kiss, so to speak, happens when he has to bring her back to life after a failed dive at one of the world’s biggest tournaments.
I can only say that it would appear that way, as “The Deepest Breath” doesn’t shine any light whatsoever on the relationship that began to blossom between its two subjects during their final days together, even though it’s easy to appreciate what they must have seen in each other. In a film so compelled by the mysteries that motivate people — a film about the magic power that compels someone to dive 104 meters deep just because they watched their rival dive 103 — it’s bewildering that McGann has so little interest in how Keenan brought out the best in Zecchini.
Given the brief period of time that separated romance and tragedy, it’s understandable that McGann might have been grasping at straws, but omitting certain voices — for what seems to be the benefit of cheap suspense — can’t help but cut her movie off at the knees. The result is a fascinating but frustratingly superficial portrait of “the deepest woman in the world.” A film that, for all of its ethereal underwater cinematography, leaves us feeling that Zecchini has receded too far below the surface to ever see her clearly.
“The Deepest Breath” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it later this year.
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