Senna

Riveting documentary on the life and career of Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna. Formula One or F1 is the highest class of single seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Senna, who in his ten years of F1 competition won the world championship three times, is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest F1 driver of all time. The film builds a fairly convincing case of Senna’s importance in the pursuit of racing.

We are presented with an organized and interesting story, enjoyed by the fanatic as well as the casual spectator. Make no mistake, however, it will help to have some interest in auto racing to truly appreciate this biography.  A motorsport enthusiast will find more to love here. Filmmaker Asif Kapadia uses archival footage to show what it’s like to race from the driver’s perspective. These scenes are exhilarating. Formula One cars race at speeds of up to 220 mph (360 km/h). I, not knowing anything about Formula One Racing, gained a real appreciation for the talent and skill needed to be successful. You have to essentially memorize the racetrack because the twists and turns come so fast, it’s impossible to navigate without having some prior knowledge of what’s coming.

Where the picture truly shines is in the narrative which is built entirely from existing footage from Senna’s life. Director Asif Kapadia pored through thousands of hours of film to assemble the brilliantly edited piece of filmmaking here. Senna initially began his career with racing go-karts as a teenager. It clearly was a pivotal time in his life because it laid the groundwork for his life’s passion. He refers to kart racing as the purest form of the sport where politics played no part. He wistfully recalls those days a couple times during the story. We get to know the man directly and his own words largely form the structure of his story. When new narration is inserted, it’s underlying original footage of the era. Through brilliantly assembled archival footage we are introduced to the man and offered a window into his personality. He often comes off as surprisingly humble. Given his triumphs I would have expected a much more boastful individual.

His fierce patriotism is emotionally affecting. It’s inspiring to behold what he meant to Brazil, where he remains a national hero. Brazil didn’t have the greatest image as it was suffering through terrible times. But he reflected his Brazilian roots with joy. He brought honor and acclaim to his nation. After every victory he would take his lap of honor waving the Brazilian flag. Perhaps his most emotional race was the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. Surrounded by his countrymen, it was an event Senna was overjoyed to win. His pride is infectious.

Director Kapadia has a respectful almost fawning reverence for Senna that sometimes gets in the way of an impartial depiction. This is where the biography falls short.  We’re invited to side with Senna in his intense rivalry with French World Champion Alain Prost. Of course what would his story be without a nemesis? But Prost, with his smooth, relaxed style, doesn‘t seem particularly hateful. He was rather successful however, ultimately becoming a Formula One Drivers’ Champion, four-times. Also Senna’s clashes with Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the FIA from 1985 to 1993, contribute to his grievances. It‘s during these moments Senna appears aloof and frustrated with the pastime. All of these controversies flesh out the profile of a man essentially in love with, but occasionally disheartened with the sport. It’s a stunning portrait and the documentary overall is absorbing from beginning to end. The tension climaxes to a momentous event at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. It’s an emotional conclusion, one you won’t soon forget.

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8 Responses to “Senna”

  1. Did not know what to expect from this documentary, but was drawn in..immediately. I’d never heard of this racer, but loved all the footage. He was pretty amazing. I’m glad I saw this. Brazil should be proud.

    • The film won the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival 2011. On accepting the award, director Asif Kapadia said,

      “We were told that no one in the US knew who Ayrton Senna was, that there was no interest in Formula One, that we should forget about releasing the film here, so to win the Audience Award at Sundance is just fantastic, it makes us feel so proud. We hope this shows that there is an audience for SENNA in the US, both fans and people who have never heard of him before and I hope this is just the beginning of a long journey for SENNA in 2011.”

      It’s true, I had never heard of him either, but it didn’t matter. The film is so good, I’m thankful it was released here!

  2. Excellent review, Mark! :)

  3. Beautifully done biographic documentary with era appropriate music for score that endeared us to this, unknown to me, tragic hero. The score, especially at the end, expertly created the rising tensions from the Grand Prix politics, Senna’s growing frustrations and to his untimely demise. I, like you, knew nothing of this world, having only periodically attended the Long Beach Grand Prix here in the LA area. Definitely having some knowledge of racing would have helped as there were some references, especially to strategies about racing, speeding and then the organisation’s rules, with which I got lost. However, the documentary did an excellent job in introducing Senna to those of us unfamiliar to him and by the end of the movie, not only did we now know him but he had become so endeared to us that we were mourning along side the entire country of Brasil at the loss of such a great great man who brought not only success, recognition to a poor suffering country but also national pride and personal monetary donations to his countrymen. What a hero indeed!!

    • Yeah I don’t know anyone who knew who Senna was, but obviously he’s huge in Brazil. Seems like the U.S. is more into NASCAR than Formula 1 so that might have something to do with it. Thanks for your insightful take, Ching. That was really nicely said!

  4. Been hearing great things about this documentary and everyoen who has seen seems to be raving about it. Looking forward to checking it out (probably when it comes out on DVD).

  5. I just saw that you had reviewed this! This film for an F1 fan (which I am) is an absolute treat! One of my favourite films of last year. Most people agree that Alain Prost was painted as a pantomime villain a bit too clumsily…but the politics of F1 is just as vicious today. Has this film made you want to get into F1? – its such an amazing sport – very technical & strategic and the soap opera amongst the drivers continues!! (unless of course you are thoroughly disinterested in motor racing!)

    • The more I think about this film, the more I appreciated it. I remember it was one of your favorites. You recommeded several documentaries. I still have to see Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

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