Asif Kapadia’s new emotionally charged documentary, Senna, details the life and career of legendary Formula One racing driver, Ayrton Senna.
Hailing from a relatively privileged background, or â€˜comfortable originsâ€™ as the film puts it, Aryton Senna rapidly rose through the ranks of motor racing to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Formula One driver of all time. Tragically (no, this is not a spoiler) his life was prematurely ended while racing in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The film briefly sets out his entry into Formula One but focuses primarily on his rivalry with teammate Alain Prost, his battle with the sportâ€™s overseers and his remarkable personality and charisma that shines when he is not behind the wheel.
Asif Kapadia is a BAFTA winning filmmaker (Best British Film/Most Promising Newcomer, both for The Warrior) so it is not particularly surprising that Senna is an very well-made piece of factual cinema. The film sets out to be emotional and exciting while also staying true to its label as a documentary; it doesnâ€™t even make use of a narrator, meaning contemporary recordings and various interviews voice the entire piece. If you were to suggest that anyone narrates the film, it would be Aryton himself, whose honest self-assessment runs throughout.
What really shines through is Sennaâ€™s likeability and pure charisma. He charms virtually everyone he comes across, and induces the infatuation of an entire country, his native Brazil. It is evident that he meant an incredible amount to the nationâ€™s residents, who were struggling with social unrest and poverty throughout his career. In one particularly enjoyable scene he flirts with (almost propositions) a television presenter live on air while they are broadcasting a New Years Ever programme; her beaming smile and slightly blushed tint while he is charming her thoroughly endears him to us, and it is moments like this that embody the warmth of the film.
It is during his time at the wheel that his competitive nature and remarkable dedication shine through. It’s evident that his determination to push himself to his limits (which he believed to be higher than anyone elseâ€™s) far surpassed his fear of death. Formula One is an unquestionably dangerous sport, and he was as aware of the risks as anyone else. At one point, Alain Prost suggests that Senna believed God would protect him from severe injury, I donâ€™t believe he was correct â€“ Senna knew that he was just as likely to die as any one of his contemporaries, if not more so due to his aggressive and foolhardy style. However, he believed that to not try his absolute hardest, to not push himself to his limits, would have been to betray the great gift that God gave him, his vast talent for motor racing.
One problem the film contains is that it is in two separate languages. Rather than have someone translate the variety of footage used that is in Portuguese, they decided to stick with the original speech. Therefore, it is necessary to see a screening with decent subtitles. When I watched it, the Portuguese sections were translated (a little too literally) in the subtitles, but the ones in French were not (these usually being items from the French media). Therefore, I lostÂ a little of the dialogue, though I got the gist of it and didnâ€™t feel like I missed anything too key.
Senna is a fluent piece of cinema; it effectively uses real race footage, a variety of interviews and other pieces of archived film, without ever overloading on one or the other. I can only imagine the dedication it must have taken from the filmâ€™s creators to gather all the various bits of footage and then to put them together in such a coherent manner. Therefore,Â Senna should be looked upon as a lovingly-made and brilliantly crafted documentary. While I have mentioned how proficient the visuals are, it is also worth mentioning that the soundwork is at least on a par. The film begins with its original score, and this plays throughout, juxtaposed with the various vibrant sound effects current in F1. Itâ€™s an intense experience, and by the time we approached the filmâ€™s denouement I could barely watch it reach its inevitable and harrowing conclusion.
It would be a mistake to suggest that only fans of the sport would enjoy this movie, while they might gain a little more from it, and have a slightly easier time following events on-screen (particularly the beginning of his career), I would wholeheartedly expect a wide variety of cinema-goers to be riveted by it. Note however, that the version I have viewed is the 105-minute one (which is likely to be the one released in cinemas), there is also one that runs close to three hours, so this may be a little more testing for non-fans of F1.
Senna is not just the depiction of a remarkable racing driver, it is the depiction of a remarkable man who in his short life, filled his many fans with constant excitement and positivity. I cannot cite one fault with the production – in terms of how well it has been conceived, it is close to perfection. Tense, exciting, endearing, at times even gripping, Senna is a first class documentary. Aryton Senna was a fascinating character, and it is excellent to see him immortalised in such a proficient piece of cinema. The film has already gained much appraisal at various festivals, and while it has already been a strong year for documentary features, this is the best one I’ve seen yet. Make a point to go see it when it comes out.
Senna is scheduled for general release in the UK on the 3rd of June.