If you’re not familiar with the concept, free diving essentially is diving into the ocean without an oxygen tank, holding your breath the entire time, and sometimes without the help of things like flippers or monofins. Free divers can hold their breath for an insane amount of time, withstand tons of pressure, and basically dive into the darkest depths of the ocean. For some, this sounds like torture, for them, it is their greatest passion.
McGann starts The Deepest Breath by giving us an idea of the risks that accompany free diving. As you can imagine, there are several. The problems do not start as you are diving, we learn that after about 30 meters, the diver enters into a state of “free fall” where you are simply pulled down via gravity. The struggle happens when you have to rise back up toward the surface. You must survive swimming up through the water pressure, and the final 10 meters is the most dangerous. We watch experts break through the surface and immediately pass out, a phenomenon that is both harrowing and disturbingly common in the sport.
Despite these horrors, The Deepest Breath introduces us to Alessia, who is not only in love with free diving but competitive and determined to set a new world record as a female free diver. She meets Stephen, the safety diver, and the two quickly fall in love with each other. Much like documentaries of Sundance’s past like Playing with Sharks or Fire of Love, there is a distinct tenderness and romance between our two “protagonists” both with their love of the sport and also for each other. It proves to be an effective storytelling device that works well in The Deepest Breath.
That’s not to discount the tragic story that ultimately plays out in the documentary, but Stephen and Alessia give us an anchor to hold onto in this world. We learn about the most perilous diving site on earth, literally called the Blue Hole in Dahab, Egypt — diving the Blue Hole is considered more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest — and learn that only one woman, Natalia Molchanova, has successfully completed the dive. Becoming the second woman to dive into the Blue Hole is, of course, Alessia’s goal.
You might be tempted to compare The Deepest Breath to documentaries like Free Solo, but while Free Solo has a distinct lack of heart and warmth (with a subject who often feels more like a machine than a man), The Deepest Breath has the same determination but Alessia and Stephen’s story is full of life and heart. Footage of both of the subjects shows adventurous individuals. Stephen, we learn, is a hero in the freediving community after he was willing to endanger himself in order to save a fellow diver (Molchanova’s son, coincidentally). The conflict of man versus nature is still there, but The Deepest Breath makes us want to root for Alessia. She’s fought tooth and nail to accomplish the impossible, and when the time comes to swim the Blue Hole, you feel as anxious as she does.
McGann weaves together an emotional and tragic tale in the third act, one that hits hard after following the story of these two lovers throughout the film. Mixing this with the magnificent footage of an alien underwater world, one that few of us will ever see with our own eyes, and there is a lot to like. The Deepest Breath joins the likes of Playing with Sharks and Fire of Love for the way it not only documents some of the most dangerous and impossible things a human can do, but also the deep connections that we can form in the most unlikely of places.