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New on Netflix: The Deepest Breath

The Deepest Breath (Netflix)
The Deepest Breath (Netflix)

It’s the true, compelling story of freedivers Alessia Zecchini and Steve Keenan – STEVE WEINMAN previews the latest dive-related offering to come on stream.

More than a few social-media commentators were working themselves into a minor frenzy during the week the Titan submersible went missing at the Titanic wreck site – and all because Netflix had scheduled that same time-period to preview its upcoming freediving movie The Deepest Breath.

Also read: Absolute freediving world records set in Roatan

Running trailers for this movie-length documentary were the height (or depth) of bad taste and timing, it was claimed.

I found this surprising because, apart from sea water and a looming sense of threat, it was difficult to see that these two stories or their backgrounds had a great deal in common. 

Alessia Zecchini in the zone (Netflix)
Alessia Zecchini in the zone (Netflix)

The Titan debacle involved five people willingly sealed into a container, ostensibly for their own safety, plunging kilometres beneath the cold Atlantic and totally dependent on technology to do so. The Deepest Breath is all about the unencumbered personal freedom and physical control that the term “freediving” implies, and takes place in little more than 100m of warm seas. 

The former is about exploring remote seabeds in a way that only money can buy; the latter is about people exploring their own physical limits in open water.  

Competitive freediving and deep-sea diving might be worlds apart but, of course, things can go wrong with either pursuit. Perhaps surprisingly, however, fatalities are rare in either sphere.

Netflix’s last foray into freediving dwelt on the dark side, reviving the story of the late Audrey Mestre (allegedly) and her husband Pipin Ferreras, who promptly hit the streaming service with a lawsuit for its trouble. To be fair, it has also explored the positive aspects of the sport in the past, as in The Ice Dive featuring Johanna Nordblad. 

Reaching for the depth tag (Netflix)
Reaching for the depth tag (Netflix)

Netflix does like its female freedivers, and The Deepest Breath is about the Italian world champion Alessia Zecchini, a true modern breath-hold icon, driven, focused and the greatest female exponent of the art since her idol Natalia Molchanova.

Zecchini today holds the world records in an incredible four AIDA depth disciplines and they have been hers in some cases for four or five years. One she set only this year, in Constant Weight with Bifins.

Athlete and coach (Netflix)
Athlete and coach (Netflix)

But this new production is concerned with her diving career up to 2017. She was still making her way to the top and, although she had proved very successful in dynamic apnea competition and set a large number of CMAS world records, including Constant Weight with and without fins, she had yet to secure that all-important AIDA world depth title.

The Deepest Breath leads up to such an attempt at the elite Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas, and her subsequent bid to dive on one breath through the Blue Hole at Dahab in Egypt, as Molchanova had done before her.

I realise that most freedivers are likely to be well aware of Zecchini’s backstory but, because not all scuba divers and snorkellers might be, please don’t read on if concerned about spoilers! 

Then there were two

Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini (Netflix)
Steve Keenan and Alessia Zecchini (Netflix)

It’s no secret that Zecchini is still with us, but The Deepest Breath concerns her relationship with her coach Steve Keenan and how it came about. In the film he is referred to in the past tense and in an elegiac style from the start, making it pretty obvious that he won’t be around at the finish. 

The pair’s relationship is clearly intimate from the way they behave together in public. Zecchini is a temperamental individualist who doesn’t take kindly to direction – downright stroppy, in fact, when things don’t go her way. And then she meets Keenan.

We follow this Irish wanderer who had eventually settled in Dahab, opened a diving school and secured an enviable reputation as a safety freediver, cemented after his heroic underwater rescue of none other than Natalia's son Alexey Molchanov.

Relaxed at depth (Netflix)
Relaxed at depth (Netflix)

Keenan has a discerning eye and can see the flaws that are holding back Zecchini’s performance. She has enough respect for him to allow him to coach her, and their bond produces clear results.

She seems happier and more relaxed with him around and later, when it comes to diving through that infamous 25m-wide arch at a depth beyond 50m, who would she want to have waiting on the other side but her trusted trainer?

Freedivers capture a lot of footage of themselves and their dives, because otherwise their feats would be invisible to the public, so director and writer Laura McGann had no shortage of raw material to draw on for this film.

There is also telling commentary, especially from the two freedivers’ fathers, but thankfully McGann doesn’t allow too many talking heads to impede the action. The director hits the ground running by opening with an entire 3min+ dive and, whether or not you know the outcome of the story, the suspenseful atmosphere just keeps building from there.  

A part of me wanted the variety of freediving disciplines explained for the casual audience, because The Deepest Breath does give the impression that getting past 100m and back on a line is pretty much it.

However, I’m glad to say that the director avoided the sort of exposition that might have unbalanced what is a compelling, well-told tale. It might be a sad one, but I don’t think this sympathetic treatment of two people striving for perfection does freediving anything but good.

The Deepest Breath has a runtime of 108min and is released on Netflix from 19 July.

Also on Divernet: Learn to freedive with Emma Farrell

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