This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 4th September 2011
When lauded critics rave about a film you’re yet to see, there’s sometimes doubt that it can really be that great. Even before its recent New Zealand Film Festival debut, Senna had been receiving the highest praise and had become, in its first month of release, 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 everything it’s cracked up to be. 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 it all into a completely riveting, enthralling documentary. Though occasionally using Senna’s own words as voiceover, there are no new filmed interviews, which makes the film fairly unusual in documentary terms. But 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 the standard narrative formula for sports documentaries which naturally focuses on the important races, covering the lead-up, the bitter rivalries, and providing an exciting record of the action. We frequently find ourselves in the driver’s seat (in fact, at his right shoulder) thanks to in-car camera footage – thrilling as we weave around the racetrack at speeds of more than 200km/h – and demonstrating just how difficult it is to drive Formula One well, and win.
Although the film has been popular with boy-racers the world over, you don’t have to be a Formula One fan to find it gripping. Senna comes across as an exceptionally humble, committed young man, outrageously disqualified from world champion status, and graciously raising this as a grievance the following year.
It’s not a spoiler to mention that he tragically lost his life at age 34. What is devastating about this film is to see someone so talented and vibrant, and to know that calamity is just around the corner.