When people rave about a film you’re yet to see, particularly overseas reviewers in worthy film magazines, you get excited – but there’s still a feeling of suspicion about really how great the film can possibly be. Senna has been receiving high praise, and after only one month of release was the fifth highest grossing documentary at the UK box office – ever. That’s certainly saying something.
As it turns out, Senna – an account of the Formula One racing days of Brazilian super-hero Ayrton Senna – is just what it says on the tin. Director Asif Kapadia pulls together found footage of Senna and the various races, pre-race meetings, and interviews with key players of the time, and splices this into a completely gripping, enthralling documentary. While we occasionally have Senna’s words as voiceover, there are no new interviews, which makes the film fairly unusual in doco terms. But it’s enough. We have everything we need to gain a full picture of the handsome, gentle, spiritual young man who provided Brazil with its “only hope” during decades of despair (we see locals openly admitting that Brazil has nothing going for it “except Senna”).
Kapadia follows a standard narrative formula for sports documentaries, naturally focusing on the important races, covering the lead-up, the emotional make-up of the subjects, and providing an exciting record of the game in action. Thus we frequently find ourselves in the driver’s seat (well, actually at his right shoulder) with the use of in-car camera footage – thrilling as we weave around the racetrack at speeds of more than 200km/hour – and giving us the necessary insight into just how difficult it is to drive Formula One well, and win.
You don’t have to be a racing fan to care. Ayrton Senna comes across as an exceptionally humble, completely committed young man, outrageously disqualified from world champion status one year, and graciously raising this as a grievance the following. It’s not a spoiler to say that Senna tragically lost his life at age 34. What is devastating about this film is watching him so talented, so alive, and knowing that calamity is just around the corner.