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Senna

Senna

By Ben Nicholson • February 20th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
SENNA (MOVIE)
Universal Pictures / Working Title Films

Release date: June 3rd 2011
Certificate (UK): 12A
Running time: 106 minutes

Director: Asif Kapadia
Writer: Manish Pandey

Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams

I don’t remember having a particular affinity for motor racing when I was a child; cars have never really interested me as much as football, or superheroes. Despite that, I distinctly remember watching the 1994 San Marino grand prix and seeing the crash that killed the great Ayrton Senna.

I also remember that a day or two later I wrote a faux newspaper story about it at my primary school because it had such an emotional impact on me. Since that day I have still never become interested in Formula 1 but I have still always regarded Senna as the one driver who I had liked despite not really understanding the man or the sport at the time of his death.

Skip forward 17 years and Asif Kapadia, a director known for his narrative feature films (The Warrior, Far North) directs the documentary looking at the career and tragic death of one of the greatest F1 drivers to ever have raced.

Senna

The film briefly looks at Senna’s childhood and early career (his racing of go-karts giving him the chance to travel away from Brazil and his early F1 years at Toleman and Lotus) but the central focus of the film is Senna’s time at McLaren and his rivalry with French teammate and World Champion, Alain Prost.

Senna is composed entirely of archive footage; some of this is from television, some is from home movies released to the filmmakers by the Senna de Silva family. There are also interviews with friends, family members and others that knew him, but these are restricted to use on the audio track and play over original footage from the time rather than being seen as talking heads.

The achievements of the filmmakers in this documentary are twofold. Firstly, they give a thrilling account of the man’s time in Formula 1. The twists and turns of his career may be considerably lessened if one is already familiar with the period and recalls the races and controversies which he was a part of in his competition with Prost, but I think that, even with prior knowledge, the editing and use of in-car footage give an immediacy that will still have hearts racing even if they know how certain encounters will end. I for one was completely unaware of the outcomes and as such I very much enjoyed being along for the tense thrill rides – especially in the sort of scenario where Senna had enormous gaps to close in just a few laps.

The second achievement of the filmmakers is to create a portrait of Senna – both as idol and man – through recollections, interviews and through his actions. We are given a glimpse of a charismatic and incredibly patriotic man who is at the same time spiritual and humble. We see him become an icon in Brazil and see him donate vast amounts of money in his native country to try to help children who may not be as fortunate as he was. In a similar way to the recent Fire in Babylon, we see throughout the film how a wonderful sporting triumph can go a long way to alleviating the pains a national community faces.

On top of this we are also shown a passionate and ruthless racing driver who seems intent on being the fastest and purest in his profession. When compared to Prost, who is presented as cold and calculating, Senna seems like a force of nature behind the wheel. We see what appears to be Prost having Senna disqualified from a race which sees the Brazilian questioning whether he should even finish the season and sees the beginning of constant political struggles with the head of F1, Jean-Marie Balestrea.

Senna

We also see Senna take Prost out of a race and, whether it was intentional or not, it is clear that our protagonist is uncomfortable with what has happened. He considers life outside of the sport and the tragic death of another driver, at the same event in which Senna would die, had a serious effect on him and his feelings about racing in his final days. Ultimately, he knew he could not quit.

The vilification of Prost and Balestrea in the film obviously fits with how Senna and his supporters felt and feel and so is not necessarily out of place here, but at the same time, some people (including myself) may be left hoping for a slightly more balanced look at their rivalry. The film takes Senna’s side pretty unconditionally and perhaps further inspection of his faults, which are mostly glossed over, would have made the piece even more compelling.

However, this is celebration of Ayrton Senna and is engaging from the first minute to the last. Senna is endlessly watchable and likeable and it can easily be argued that he was one of the greatest racing drivers to have lived. This is a film about a wonderful sportsman and you do not have to be a fan of the sport to enjoy it – is worth watching even if you think F1 is a button on a computer keyboard (thanks to a variety of sources for that joke).

Ultimately, it is a worthy winner of awards and deserves the praise it has received; as the 1994 grand prix is covered at the climax of the film, it was just as affecting and emotional as it was all those years ago.

Senna

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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