An inventive documentary telling the tragic story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing legend
Senna is not a traditional motor racing documentary. The film follows the career of Brazilian Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna, from his early days as a teenage go-kart protégé, through his blistering F1 career up to his tragic death, aged just 34, after crashing at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
However, there isn’t a single clip of talking-head footage throughout director Asif Kapadia’s labour of love. Instead the tale is told through newsreel and F1 archive footage, as well as Super 8 from the Senna family’s home video vault.
The footage (spanning over 20 years) is expertly sewn together along with freshly recorded voiceover from Senna’s friends, family and colleagues, as well as countless journalists.
Thanks in part to the wealth of footage available (both on the track and behind the scenes), Kapadia is able to formulate a seamless narrative which is much more than just a retrospective look back at Senna’s life. Instead, this incredibly deep and moving story is told in the present tense, unfolding before our very eyes.
The story begins as a young Senna is making the transition from go-kart champion to Formula One wunderkind, and focuses on his hopes and dreams, as well as the fears of his immediate family, which would sadly come to fruition all too soon.
An early highlight of the film is the footage of Senna’s first big F1 race, the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. The audience in the Queen's Film Theatre audibly gasp at the grainy 28 year-old footage, Senna screaming round the track. The man drove as he lived – with fierce, unstoppable determination.
Whilst the racing footage is exhilarating and breathtaking, this is less a film about Formula One and more a story about the man: a tale of fortune and glory, legend and tragedy. Indeed, Kapadia knew little of Formula One beforehand, although he is no stranger to films revolving around extraordinary characters, as is evident from previous features The Warrior and Far North.
Senna himself comes across as at once humble and proud, a determined racing genius, revered worldwide and idolised in his home country of Brazil, where he is seen as a beacon in an era of darkness. He is charismatic and confident, yet simultaneously down to earth. He is also contradictory and flawed.
A large portion of the film focuses on Senna’s love/hate relationship with fellow driver, Alain Prost. This relationship is sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking and often very funny. One clip shows Prost stating that Senna ‘revolts him’. After beating his colleague at the height of their bitter rivalry, Senna strolls coolly to the podium, uttering the words, 'Prost! You son of a bitch!’ as he passes his teammate.
The film brings to light an even more interesting relationship, however – the one between Senna and the FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre. The two were often at odds, and Balestre comes across as an ignorant, overbearing Mussolini style figure.
Whilst Senna is less an F1 film and more a story about humanity, it does explore the incongruous nature of the politics of the sport, embodied by Balestre. Often Senna seems to long for the simplicity of his go-karting days, stating that it was ‘pure racing, without politics or money’.
The film’s final moments are, as expected, deeply moving. The audience follow Senna’s emotions, his victories and defeats, peaking when he peaks, relaxing when he does. This screening ends on a reflective moment of calm, as the mournful audience digest the previous 105 minutes.
Senna is an inventive, triumphant and tragic journey through the life of one extraordinary man, which will appeal to die-hard racing fans and film lovers alike.
Senna shows at QFT from June 21-23. Book your tickets via What's On.