Review: ‘Senna’ is High Speed and Highly Personal

By  · Published on August 12th, 2011

Formula One racing is something of a mystery on these NASCAR-obsessed American shores. As a consequence of that, we’ve all heard much more about the Dale Earnhardts and Jeff Gordons of the U.S. automotive world than Ayrton Senna, the late Brazilian driver who’s widely considered to have been one of the best racers of all time.

Travel many places outside North America, though, and Formula One is part sport and part religion, attracting legions of fans, reams of sponsors and an enormous swath of media attention. So it’s possible that the celebrity of Senna, who won three world championships and 41 races over the course of his ten-year career (1984–94), eclipsed that of even the most fervently-admired NASCAR racers.

Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a documentary about the athletic giant, is one part useful primer into his feats and one part perceptive character study. Consisting entirely of contemporaneous footage – home video images provided by Senna’s family as well as gritty race scenes and revealing behind-the-scenes imagery – the film simultaneously hurls you into the highly-charged world of Formula One and the private emotional space of its complex protagonist.

A quiet, religious family man, Senna was something of an anomaly in the glamorous world of the Grand Prix. He read the Bible frequently and took seriously his image and impact in his politically unstable, poverty-stricken home country. As he’s comprehensively captured by Kapadia here, Senna had bigger things on his mind than the petty egotistical disputes that frequently threatened to throw Formula One into chaos.

That’s not to suggest the film makes the driver seem above it all, disinterested in competition. In fact, Kapadia purposefully stresses just how intense and focused a competitor Senna was. The filmmaker adeptly incorporates footage shot from his subject’s dashboard camera during races and, in one particularly rousing sequence, pauses to give voice to the primal joy that pours forth from the driver immediately after an improbable, career-defining victory.

Audio commentaries from many of the most important people in Senna’s life and career lend shape and perspective to the proceedings. The most poignant of these is provided by French driver Alain Prost, Senna’s chief rival. On screen, Prost is repeatedly seen ribbing Senna and campaigning to have his victories taken away. The two openly express mutual disgust as they engage in years of hard-fought competition.

But as the film progresses that anger gives way to a deep-rooted sense of shared admiration. Each man comes to understand and appreciate the value of the other, to recognize the joy of sitting in a car, anticipation building for the start of a race, with a great competitor at your side and glory just a finish line away. That’s sport at its best.

So it is that when Senna dies and Kapadia shows us the mourners at his funeral, a brief shot of a teary-eyed Prost tells us more than a thousand words ever could.

The Upside: This is a powerful, comprehensive documentary that sheds light on a remarkable man.

The Downside: If you’re not remotely interested in the nuts-and-bolts of Formula One, you’ll probably be bored at times.

On the Side: The movie won the World Cinema Audience documentary award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.