Chicago – Here’s one of the smartest documentaries to come around in a good long while. Director Asif Kapadia tackles subject matter that begs to be told with immediacy and he ends up succeeding every step of the way. His masterstroke in the Sundance prize-winner, “Senna,” is at once simple and ingenious: the entire picture is told purely through archival footage, allowing the subjects to tell their own story as it unfolded.
This is not a picture delivered in the gauze of sentimental nostalgia. It has the rip-roaring pace and mounting suspense of an A-grade Hollywood thriller, and deserves to be discovered by a wide audience in its DVD release. Despite the fact that I personally have no interest in race car driving, I was riveted by every frame of this heartfelt tribute to the Brazilian Formula One racer, Ayrton Senna, considered by many to be the greatest driver of all time.
There would be a greater temptation in a conventional documentary to lionize an renowned icon like Senna. After all, the man was hailed as a symbol for hope by his fellow countrymen in Brazil, who loved the fact that he proudly displayed their flag at races. The racer also harbored philanthropic desires, which led to the establishment of Instituto Ayrton Senna, an NGO founded by his family in the aftermath of his untimely death at the mere age of 34. This senseless tragedy on the racetrack was especially ironic, since Senna made a point of pushing for higher safety regulations by standing up to bull-headed FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes off like a stereotypical villain in the footage (“The best decision is my decision!” he barks). The other racers remain largely silent during these tense confrontations, but it’s clear that Senna’s unflagging confidence remained consistent both on and off the track.
If Kapadia had decided to juxtapose this footage with modern day talking heads, the film could’ve easily become a one-note ode to a timeless role model. Yet the director made the bold choice of concentrating the film’s focus solely on Senna’s extraordinary career, and the fierce rivalries and controversies that he faced on the way to becoming a three-time world champion. Aside from some audio interviews with family members and brief home movie footage, the film provides little to no insight into Senna’s personal life. That may sound like a demerit, but it actually helps the viewer become even more swept up into the moment-to-moment drama of the sport.
It certainly helps that Senna was one of the most photographed men of his time, particularly during the decade-long period kicking off from his initial season in 1984 and culminating in his death in 1994. Kapadia and his spectacularly gifted editors, Chris King and Gregers Sall, utilize footage from every possible source to create a cinematic collage more compelling and rich than any scripted biopic. Even when he’s behind his helmet, Senna’s enormously expressive eyes convey every nuance of his inner psyche. We also can sense how the friendly words exchanged between Senna and veteran rival Alain Prost directly conflict with their carefully calculated body language.
Whereas Prost would play strictly for points (earning the nickname of “professor”), Senna’s approach was more compulsory. Even after spinning out due to a freak collision, Senna would continue on the track, determined to finish the race in first place. A sudden downpour of rain would only amplify his attention at the wheel, leading him to take corners so closely that it caused the audience’s hair to stand on end. The most thrilling footage of all was captured within Senna’s car, and it creates a visceral jolt on even the smallest of screens. Only a handful of films have been able to approximate the unsettling exhilaration of hurtling through space, and “Senna” deserves honorable placement in that group. It also deserves to be studied by filmmakers intent on making a grounded and humanistic portrait of a larger-than-life figure.
“Senna” is presented in its original widescreen format and is sadly marred by some strangely incompetent extras. Like many recent DVD releases, “Senna” fails to include any subtitles apart from extra-small English captions for dialogue delivered by Portuguese speakers. Yet even English speakers will be at a loss to understand the foreign language of various subjects in the disc’s hour of additional interviews, which doesn’t include any captions at all. It also declines to name the people within the interview compilation, leaving only subjects like Prost to be easily identifiable. It’s clear that Prost had deep affection for Senna despite their heated competition, and there’s a memorable moment where he reminisces about meeting his arch-rival for the first time (Prost later served as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral and a trustee for his NGO).
The best extra by far is the commentary track where Kapadia is joined by writer Manish Pandley and producer James Gay-Rees. The director discusses his intention to utilize a three-act structure and create a strong visual style while choosing clips for content over film quality. His choice proved to be impeccable, since the weathered nature of various clips ends up giving an intimate power to their content. Every time the camera cuts out in Senna’s car, you may easily find yourself gripping the arm of your chair for dear life.