At the time of his death at age 34, Ayrton Senna da Silva was already being called one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time, if not the greatest. A three-time world champion, he was known for his effortless grace and precision on the road, and his baffling knack for racing in the rain. He also looked like a movie star. It’s no wonder that Asif Kapadia, a BAFTA-winning British filmmaker, chose him for a documentary subject.

Senna was a passionate figure, charismatic and full of bravado. He believed zealously in both God and Brazil. Born to a wealthy family in São Paulo, to whom he remained devoted, he was also a generous philanthropist during a particularly miserable economic time for the country. Millions of people attended his funeral (making his the country’s biggest), and Brazil honoured him with three days of mourning. He was also quite vocal about improving the rules and safety standards of Formula One. But it took his death and that of Roland Ratzenberger—both at Italy’s 1994 San Marino Grand Prix—for the sport to get safer. The changes made a difference. Senna was the last Formula One driver to have died on the track.

Working with Manish Pandey, Mr Kapadia spent five years creating this well researched and highly satisfying film. They sorted through reels of television footage and spoke to countless Formula One figures, including Senna’s doctor and managers, his family members and quite a few racing commentators. The result is a seamless patchwork of race clips, interviews, pre-race meetings and home-movie footage donated by Senna’s family.

Perhaps inevitably, “Senna” does enter the realm of worship. And why not? The film features much footage of Senna lounging with his shirt off on the beach and making witty remarks about his skills, his rivals (particularly Alain Prost) and occasionally his love life, all against a quality soundtrack of Brazilian pop music and original orchestral compositions that capture the excitement and tension of the racetrack. In one clip from a Brazilian television variety show, the show’s presenter, a towering blonde, reveals herself as either Senna’s girlfriend or an eager aspirant by touching him suggestively and whispering things in his ear about “Christmas presents”. Such scenes underscore an obvious point: Senna was born to decorate the walls of millions of teenage bedrooms.

For the filmmakers there was no way around Senna’s charms. He was never short on heart-on-sleeve remarks, but his meticulousness is just as captivating as his on-camera assertions and boyish expressiveness. In one clip, Senna is shown sculpting earplugs into a precise shape prior to a race. He conducts this familiar little exercise slowly and painstakingly, making it seem as much a meditative pre-race ritual as an act of perfectionism.

It is hard not to be drawn into the seductive drama of this man’s life, which was essentially devoted to achieving some kind of euphoria at the risk of death. “Senna” duly earned a standing ovation at the South By Southwest Festival and won the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at Sundance. Mr Kapadia has delivered a conscientious film that captures the unique beauty and tragedy of Senna’s short life. It will be hard to find another documentary as moving as this one this year.

source: ©