In another life, Ayrton Senna would have made a great priest. Handsome and soft-spoken, with an eye toward helping others when he could, the Brazilian was also motivated by a deep religious faith. But that faith didn’t put him in the pulpit. It sent him hurtling around a track at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.


The excellent documentary “Senna” looks at the life of the legendary Formula One race car driver who dominated the sport with three world championships until his death on the track in 1994. “Senna” would have fit well with ESPN’s “30 on 30” series of high-quality documentaries that lionize their subjects but get at the complexities, and sometimes the underlying corruption, in the sporting world.

Filmmaker Asif Kapadia tells Senna’s story with a wealth of archival footage — interviews with those who knew Senna are presented only in voice-over, not shown on camera. As a result, “Senna” is a streamlined piece of filmmaking, completely immersing the viewer in Senna’s world and never losing momentum as it moves from one breakneck race to another. The race footage, especially in later races when portable cameras were mounted onto the drivers’ cars, is breathtaking to watch, giving the viewer a feel for the exhilaration and danger of Formula One racing.

Off the track, Kapadia illustrates the pressures Senna faced, from battles with the politicized forces who ran the sport to a well-publicized feud with French driver Alain Prost. Their clashes year after year at the Japanese Grand Prix would be tailor-made for a Hollywood movie, if the outcomes weren’t so unpredictable.

More importantly, the film gives viewers a sense of Senna and his contradictions. He was a spiritual man, yet a celebrity and playboy; he was a humble man not afraid to display flashes of arrogance. And there’s a certain part of Senna that remains tantalizingly unknowable, such as what he meant when, after finally winning his first world championship, he says, “I just feel peace.”

The film builds to that terrible 1994 weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix, and a growing sense of dread builds in the viewer as one driver is injured in an early race and another is killed. Senna, worried about the unfamiliar new car he’s driving, nonetheless settles into the cockpit, and in the archival footage he looks positively ashen and somber. Does he sense what’s about to happen to him?

Like so much else about Senna, that will remain unknown. But “Senna” provides a moving and thrilling introduction to the man for non-race fans, and an affirmation to fans that he was one of the best, most interesting stars of the sport.

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