Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna enjoyed an adrenaline-fuelled, extraordinary career before his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. So it’s fitting that the man often regarded as the greatest racer who ever lived gets a documentary to match. Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia, is unquestionably one of the finest films of 2011 but that’s mere hyperbole, and only serves to gloss over the film’s many achievements.
Starting with the Brazilian’s appearance on the F1 circuit in the mid-80s and moving up to the legacy he left behind after his untimely death, it’s an unexpectedly haunting portrayal of a man both egotistical and humble, one who spent much of his life in the public eye but who was also a hero to those in poverty in his native Sao Paolo.The plethora of archive footage reveals some behind-the-scenes gems, especially when focusing on the controversial Senna’s notorious rivalry with French co-driver Alain Prost. And yet, it never feels like research for research’s sake.
Instead, the film leaps beyond the screen to take on a complex and multi-faceted texture. First and foremost, it’s a character study, and so incisively made is it, that we vicariously live through Senna’s triumphs and failings. We’re elevated by his appearance on the podium; dejected when schoolboy rivalry sees him shunted off the track; and apprehensive, terrified even, during the build-up to his fateful final day.
It’s also a poignant insight into what may be regarded as a lost era: an era in Formula One before red-tape, rules and politics came crashing down around the drivers’ ears. There’s an ironic humour in the footage showing the speed of the wet laps – drivers are highly unlikely to get away with such antics now, and it’s invigorating to be reminded of the earlier, more raw days of the sport.
Many will question whether the film can hold the attention if one isn’t interested in the sport. The answer is an unequivocal yes, because it’s no dry academic text. It’s a project that has clearly been researched, compiled and edited with great care and compassion, and the film’s understanding of its subject is quite remarkable. Fundamentally, it’s about how one man strove for success, strove to better himself – an urge we all feel. Out of the recent documentary purple patch (TT3D: Closer to the Edge; Rio Breaks et al), Senna is unquestionably the finest, and stands as a pinnacle of what can be achieved with the format.
For weekly news, reviews and interviews on all the latest films, including those from local Devon and Cornwall filmmakers, tune into The Movie Show on Riviera FM from 13.00 to 15.00 on Sundays, presented by John Tomkins and myself. Visit http://www.riviera.fm/