The world can probably be divided into two camps of people: those who will watch “The Deepest Breath,” a heart-pumping documentary on the extreme sport of free-diving, and understand the dangerous pull of the big blue, and those for whom it might be the most nightmarish vicarious trip into the ocean since “Jaws.” Both factions, however, are likely to be compelled by Laura McGann’s handsomely produced crowdpleaser, which employs startling underwater photography and some canny reconstruction to make immediate on screen a potentially obscure calling. The human narrative it finds amid this spectacle, however, is a little less persuasive, marred by an ill-advised decision to play life-and-death scenarios for suspense.
That won’t deter a large audience from seeking out this A24-produced Sundance premiere when it’s released onto Netflix later this year, though it is a film that will play better theatrically — for the most literally immersive experience possible — than on small screens, where the somewhat forced machinations of its storytelling may be more evident. The most obvious analog here is National Geographic’s Oscar-winning “Free Solo,” which likewise balanced high-stakes outdoor spectacle with a more questioning character study of the human putting himself through all that peril, though largely by design, “The Deepest Breath” never gets all that close to its principal thrill-chaser.
That would be Italian free-diver Alessia Zecchini, labeled by one associate here as “the deepest woman in the world” — presumably for her record-breaking prowess in diving to depths over 100m below the ocean’s surface, though if they’re referring to something more philosophical, we don’t get much face time with her to find out. For the bulk of the film, it’s left to a gallery of talking heads — friends, sporting colleagues and her suitably proud but understandably anxious father Enzo — to fill in the backstory of what drew her early on to the deep, and continues to motivate her diving career, as the film works toward Zecchini’s climactic world-record attempt at the 2017 Vertical Blue free-diving competition.
It’s a slightly unsatisfactory measure: Zecchini’s peers speak of her in generically admiring platitudes, and while Enzo’s recollections of her fearless childhood resolve are more specific and affecting, the complex allure of an extreme sport is something best explained first-hand. If Zecchini’s limited presence in the film until its denouement is intended to grant “The Deepest Breath” additional tension as a survival story, the curtailment of her perspective is a large price to pay for that effect.
Unfolded parallel to Zecchini’s story, at a remove that is rather more understandable, is that of her eventual trainer Stephen Keenan. A restless, adventurous Irishman nursing lingering trauma from his mother’s untimely death, he finally found a cure for his wanderlust and emotional unrest in the world of free-diving — a pursuit that, we’re repeatedly told, can make terra firma concerns disappear for as long as you’re under. Eventually building a successful career for himself as a safety diver, coaching and assisting competitive free-divers through their hair-raising plunges, he bonded closely with Zecchini at the Vertical Blue contest — though the consistent past tense in which his loved ones speak of him, and the absence of any direct interview footage with this young, affable man, are clear enough signals that tragedy is afoot.
Rather than seek out direct, personal remembrance, however, McGann sticks to a mode of nervous foreshadowing, building to a fateful 2017 training dive undertaken by both Zecchini and Keenan that is vividly and palm-sweatingly presented on screen — but edited in such a way as to make its outcome uncertain until a surface-reaching gasp for breath. Given that most viewers will already have intuited Keenan’s narrative, this seems a queasy tactic, and one that somewhat flattens the film’s human aspect. “The Deepest Breath” takes on an aura of romantic misadventure, as acquaintances of the pair allude to their close bond without necessarily suggesting anything more than platonic between them; Zecchini’s reflections would be most poignant at this juncture, yet still the doc shuffles around her point of view.
As a pure adrenaline-rush experience, however, “The Deepest Breath” is hard to argue with, coming closer than might seem possible to conveying the exhilaration and/or terror of descending further than the length of a football field into infinite aqua. Editor Julian Cragg and DP Tim Cragg — aided by a veritable army of underwater lensers — make seamless work of bridging authentic in-the-moment footage and reconstructions: What could have been a murky journey is instead shaped by an awareness of vast space, varying liquid light and caverns of silence, except when Nainita Desai’s surging, sometimes suitably head-pounding score fills the void. For most viewers, this remote but near-tangible experience will be sufficient; for anyone yearning to take a dive themselves, the doc braids the cautionary and the cathartic.