Five years ago, the laughably acted but viscerally effective Sanctum introduced moviegoers to the terrifying sport of cave diving, in which scuba crews go spelunking in caves and natural tunnels filled with water. In Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina offers a nonfiction take, following a group of Finnish friends whose expedition in Norway goes very, very wrong. What happens next is a covert action that promises some of the happy-heist thrills of Man on Wire: While Diving never reaches that level of viewer involvement, it maintains enough drama to attract viewers curious about this life-threatening hobby.
The doc begins with a combination of self-filmed material and after-the-fact interviews. The Finns recount their doomed February 20014 attempt to follow an underground stretch of Norway’s Plura river: Two men die more than 100 meters below ground when their gear gets snared on rock formations. Given the difficulty of moving and reversing course in some of these narrow passageways, it’s perhaps surprising that three members of the party made it back to the surface.
An unusual entry point into a rarefied and dangerous pastime.
The survivors deal with guilt and trauma while local authorities try to retrieve the bodies. When they fail, and declare these caves off-limits to divers, the Finns hatch a secret plan to go in and do the job themselves.
Though he follows some elements of their planning, Reina shows less interest in its illicit nature than in the psychological challenge it presents: Not only are the men attempting to do something they’ve already failed at (in secret this time), they understand that what awaits them is a challenge far greater than they’ve encountered on normal outings. “You just cannot practice facing a dead friend at 110 meters,” one says.
Though he largely has to rely on underwater cameras mounted on divers with more pressing concerns than framing and lighting, Reina’s team aids the storytelling with some smart-looking graphics — mapping the convoluted path this river takes as it drops steeply underground, opens up into large caves and affords a few places to duck up into subterranean dry ground. Though psychological pressures result in a meaningful hiccup or two, the execution of the survivors’ plan offers less drama than they and we expect. Which is something to be grateful for, of course, even if it means a bit of anticlimax for the movie.
Venue: DOC NYC
Production companies: Fulgene AS, Monami Agency
Director-screenwriter: Juan Reina
Producer: Juho Harjula
Directors of photography: Tuukka Kovasiipi, Jarkko Virtanen
Editors: Riita Pikselka, Juan Reina
In Finnish and English
Not rated, 85 minutes