PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: (L–R) Laura McGann, Peter Keenan, Anne McLoughlin, and Jamie D’Alton attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “The Deepest Breath” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 21, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
By Lucy Spicer
Three minutes, 21 seconds. That’s how long Alessia Zecchini is underwater on a single breath during a freediving world record attempt in one of the first scenes of The Deepest Breath.
Filmmaker Laura McGann doesn’t waste any time letting us know exactly what is at stake here: Even before the documentary’s title appears on screen, we witness the world record attempt dive footage in its entirety.
Alessia propels herself down the line into the depths of the ocean until the pressure puts her in freefall. Around a minute in, she sinks beyond where light can reach her. In the darkness and quiet, she reaches her goal depth and begins the arduous task of pulling herself back up 102 meters of rope. As she ascends into the light, two safety divers appear on either side of her, watching for signs of a blackout. Just before she reaches the surface, Alessia goes limp. One of the safety divers pulls her head above water, removes her goggles, and begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Alessia’s eyes, blue as the sea, are wide open, unseeing.
The extreme sport of freediving is not for the faint of heart, but that’s part of what drew McGann to learn more about it. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” McGann remarks during the film’s post-premiere discussion on January 21 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. “Just the beauty of it, these humans behaving like seals and dolphins and just being so free to explore the ocean and experience something that most of us will never experience. It just absolutely hooked me.”
However, The Deepest Breath is much more than a suspenseful sports documentary. Above all, it’s a love story with three protagonists: Italian freediving champion Alessia Zecchini, Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan, and the ocean.
Through old home movies, iPhone footage, and interviews with parents and friends, we discover how Alessia’s and Stephen’s paths came together. While Alessia had been working toward her goal of being the best freediver in the world since childhood, Stephen wandered the globe for a while, adventuring until he fell in love with freediving in Dahab, Egypt. When Alessia and Stephen meet at a freediving competition in 2017, they appear to find in the other what each had been missing.
A strong current of fate runs through the film. Testimonies from friends, fellow athletes, and family all express the same sentiment: Alessia and Stephen’s meeting was predestined. When Alessia attempts to cross the Arch — an 85-foot-long tunnel located 184 feet deep in Dahab’s infamous Blue Hole — with Stephen as her primary safety diver, fate proves to be unkind. But knowing the tragic ending of a story doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell it (or watch it). These two extraordinary individuals were better for having known each other, and seeing them blossom on screen is a singular experience.
“It’s a very hard watch, the movie, I must say,” admits Peter Keenan — Stephen’s father — who joined McGann on stage for the discussion. “All my makeup is running into my shoes,” he jokes, drawing bittersweet chuckles from the audience.
Alessia couldn’t interrupt her training to attend the Festival, but she gave a letter to McGann to read aloud to the audience after the premiere. “There’s not a day that goes by that I haven’t racked my brain trying to understand how I could pay tribute to Stephen, who on that cursed day in July made a choice,” she begins. “On that fateful day, on that fateful July morning, Stephen chose to be a hero. He saved my life at the expense of his own, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Alessia had mixed feelings when she was contacted about making the film, but, in the end, her decision to participate was a simple one: “I knew I wanted to give my all and let it be known, even to those who didn’t know freediving was a sport, that there had been a man whose humanity was a rare commodity.”
“Everyone who participated in making the film had the same goal as me,” Alessia writes. “Stephen should be known, not just remembered.”