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‘The Deepest Breath’ Review: A heartbreaking plunge into a fathomless obsession

When it comes to entertainment, we are an impressionable species. Cooking shows make our mouth water. Musicals make us hum along. I’ve been known to randomly cheer (and/or cry) whenever I watch an underdog sports story.

Be very careful when watching Laura McGann’s Netflix and A24 documentary The deepest breath. This chronicle of the precarious, terrifying and almost mystical world of freediving will make you want to join the competition with bated breath as you follow their journeys to water depths. You’ll want it. You may not be able to resist it. But you should probably resist. The free divers? Well, they should probably resist too, but The deepest breath fits into a recent tradition of documentaries about extreme athletes whose commitment to events in which death is an accepted consequence is beyond common sense, if not belief.

The deepest breath

It comes down to

An unusual love story not for the faint of heart or the short of breath.

In the most literal sense, The deepest breath is a breathtaking documentary, filled with dazzling images, thrilling competitions and a cleverly presented love story. While the Doctor’s Tales has an approach to contortion that I find increasingly irritating each time it is used, the sheer number of visceral responses produced by The deepest breath is hard to deny. Think Free only in descent, with shades of last year’s Sundance hit Fire of loveand you will have an idea of ​​the nervous and sometimes exhilarating intoxication that accompanies this film.

Before we know her name or the event she’s participating in, The deepest breath introduces us to freediver Alessia Zecchini. In the Bahamas and on her way to attempt a record-breaking dive, Alessia is asked about the prospect of death in her favorite sport. She laughs and talks about fate, but five minutes later, after one of the most photogenic deposits this side of Luc Bessons The big blueshe has been pulled to the surface, eyes rolled back into her head and given emergency CPR.

This, the documentary eventually reveals, is not all that uncommon in freediving, a sport in which blackouts are commonplace and safety divers are so essential that they attain a level of celebrity comparable to that of the divers they protect.

McGann builds the film around two parallel biographies. Young, beautiful and driven, Alessia knew from childhood that she wanted to be a freediver, attracted by the lure of the sea and by the record-breaking celebrity of Russian freediver Natalia Molchanova. A man in search of purpose, Stephen Keenan eventually finds his way to the Egyptian diving mecca of Dahab, home of the infamous and notoriously deadly Blue Hole. After breaking Irish records in his own diving, he becomes a safety diver.

Carefully edited by Julian Hart to foreshadow but not spoil, the documentary heads for a crossroads of our heroes – and it’s headed for something more ominous. Packed with explanations of the nuances of the sport, conveyed well enough that total novices will be able to understand strategies as well as objectives, and repeated warnings that even the most regulated competitions involving the most trained divers can lead to tragedy. There is a crucial match in which Alessia blacks out for three consecutive days, and that is normal.

It’s a sport that’s remarkably good at documenting itself, and while Tim Cragg is the credited cinematographer, the documentary is composed of footage shot by more underwater photographers and above-water social media chroniclers than I could count. You may not fully understand why Alessia and Stephen do what they do, any more than you understood Alex Honnold’s desire to climb sheer cliffs without ropes or harnesses, but the footage captures Alessia and Stephen in so many different forms of cheers and abandonment that you can at least empathize with the extremes they crave. Nainita Desai’s sweeping score drowns out any remaining uncertainty on the viewer’s part, though McGann is very careful to deliver the underwater scenes without music – just breathing, heartbeats and otherworldly silence.

During The deepest breath, you know that the movie you’re watching isn’t going to dissolve into two people happily playing with puppies in a field saying, “Man, that was a crazy thing we did for a few years!” But you’re not sure what’s to come, and given that the documentary is destined for Netflix, the hope is presumably that the almost balletic grace of Alessia and her colleagues, the hermetically sealed darkness that emanates from more than 100 meters below the surface, the attempts at auditory and visual immersion will be so complete that you won’t be distracted enough to ask Google to spoil the movie for you.

I saw The deepest breath in a theater and I felt a lot of immersion and a lot of distraction, but still I felt the discomfort of the manipulated story. I understand that with a lot of movies I like including Free Soloh, the directors know the ending of a story and they use sleight of hand to keep viewers in the dark – devices from questionable chronology to talking heads using circuitous verb forms to outright withholding of information, all of which are on display here. It’s on the verge of gross, and I can’t help but think of the family members who one day watch a documentary that uses the worst (or best… no spoilers here) moment in their lives for a “gotcha” cinematic surprise.

But the craftsmanship that drives The deepest breath is so effective that I was ultimately left with a well-displayed catharsis rather than ickiness. And even in my discomfort, I’m not sure what I wish McGann had done differently. It’s a caveat, not a condemnation, of a largely powerful and beautiful film.

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