If, like me, (you think) you couldn't care less about watching cars go in circles around a track and barely know what Formula One racing even is — it seems to be like soccer to NASCAR's American football, a smaller and more delicate alternative that is more popular everywhere else — then Senna is one of the more surprising films of the year.
This documentary portrait of late Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, a three-time world champion from Brazil, not only showcases a compelling subject most American viewers won't know much about, but does so in a style that has a focus and velocity akin to Senna himself on a Grand Prix track.
British filmmaker Asif Kapadia eschews the conventional historical documentary template. There's no narration here, no contemporary talking-head interviews. Instead the film is made up entirely of chronologically presented file footage — home movies, news reports, taped and televised interviews, variety-show segments, and, most of all, racing broadcasts, whose grainy, static-y, horizontal-lined VHS quality becomes an almost hypnotic formal element. This imagery is often joined with audio-only interview material from Senna himself or other colleagues and acquaintances.
It's a film that immerses you in a likely unfamiliar world and captures the sensations of racing with cockpit-view footage in which Formula One feels closer to the ground than NASCAR, more rickety and more physical.
We meet Senna as a young, somewhat privileged young man racing go-karts in his native Brazil before making the jump to the international Formula One series with strong early showings at races such as the Monte Carlo and Portuguese Grands Prix.
Senna was a driver who, as the film portrays it, drove faster than everyone else and took more chances. "He would take the car beyond its designed capabilities," one subject asserts. "Ayrton was a genius in the rain," another marvels.
Though the film more than hints at a playboy lifestyle off the track, Senna is at heart the celebration of the intense, driven athlete, almost monk-like in his devotion. "I got closer to God and that was very important for me as a man," Senna explains after one race.
The film captures successes such as the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, where, on the verge of his first title, he stalls at the beginning and drops to 14th place before racing back — aided by his beloved rain — for an unlikely victory. And there's a homecoming triumph at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, where Senna leads start to finish despite his car getting stuck in sixth gear midway through the race. The cockpit camera captures him shouting and weeping with joy as he crosses the finish line, after which he's helped from the car with muscle spasms so painful that he tells his father "touch me gently" and everyone else "don't touch me."
But most compelling is Senna's rivalry with French driver Alain Prost, a cautious, scheming champion dubbed "the Professor" for working all the angles of the series' points system. Prost contrasts sharply with the soulful Senna, who seems more attracted to the purity of the sport and is disdainful of Prost's political maneuverings. They even look the part — Prost with his crooked nose and Senna with his almost cartoon beauty. There's a feature to be made about this rivalry, but how could any cast match up with reality?
As a journalistic documentary, Senna is imperfect. The mild attempts to put Senna in a larger social or political context relative to his struggling homeland are generally unsuccessful. And, on the whole, Senna seems a bit too abstracted and hagiographic to be trustworthy. But as the film careens toward its subject's early death, on the track at age 34, that's also part of why it's surprisingly compelling cinema. It plays like The Passion of Ayrton Senna.
Opening Friday, October 28th