Sunday, 5 June 2011
It was a forgone conclusion that I would cry by the end of 'Senna', the biographical documentary about the Brazilian three-time Formula One world champion who died after crashing his car during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. I'm easily manipulated and knew that, by the time the film got to covering the event of his premature death, I would have been rendered helpless by endless earnest accounts of the subject's greatness aided by elegiac, probably string-driven music. I was expecting to feel moved, if for no other reason than it is sad to hear about the accidental death of a relatively young person. But 'Senna', directed by Asif Kapadia, rises above cloying sentiment to provide a portrait of the icon that is as tragic as expected, yet equal parts exciting, joyful and insightful.
Mostly avoiding the driver's personal life, beyond frequent references to his devout Catholicism, the documentary does well to maintain a solid focus on Senna's career - showing us his development as a go-kart racer in his youth and following his F1 years season-by-season right up to his death. The relationships that become a part of this narrative include Senna's notorious rivalry with McLaren teammate Alain Prost, his friendship with team boss Ron Dennis and his unhappy experiences dealing with the political side of the sport - as personified by FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. This narrative, which plays out like the best dramatic sports movie, is allowed to play out using only stock footage and candid shots of life behind the scenes. The fact that those who have been interviewed especially for the film are heard but never seen keeps the focus on the amazing racing footage and ensures the film keeps its forward momentum.
A film about the triumph and tragedy of the attractive, charismatic Ayrton Senna is not a hard sell, even for myself - as someone with next to no interest in F1 racing. But what is surprising is that the racing itself is incredibly exciting to watch, especially those shots which are taken from the perspective of Senna as he whips around corners at immense speed. Through the cinema, even those allergic to sport are made to appreciate Senna's art and his daring desire to win at almost any cost. We witness high-speed overtaking and marvel at his aptitude for driving in the rain - a condition under which he seemed simply unbeatable. Watching him race, it isn't hard to understand why so many millions of Brazilians looked to him for inspiration during some of the country's poorest years.
Audiences have been reported as staying until the very end of the credits before leaving showings of 'Senna' - a practice usually reserved for those expecting a brief epilogue at the end of a superhero movie. They'll tell you they were enjoying the montage of still photographs, though I suspect this is a convenient smokescreen for those weepy souls battling to compose themselves before re-emerging into the outside world. Yet 'Senna' is not an on-screen funeral for those looking to re-acquaint themselves with grief almost two decades old: this is ultimately a celebration and an invitation for those of us who missed it all the first time around to see what made him so undeniably special.
'Senna' is on a wide release now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.