You don’t have to be a Formula One fan to get totally wrapped up in Senna, a movie about legendary Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna.


Senna died in a crash in 1994 at the age of 34 while leading the San Marino Grand Prix, but you forget this as you watch the movie, a winner of audience awards this year at the Sundance and Adelaide film festivals.

This highly charged drama, opening today at the Oxford Theatre, is told using archival footage, much of it never seen before, and without voice-overs and talking heads. It seems like a nail-biting, fictional thriller, not a documentary.

The film puts you right into its present tense, inside the race cars as they swoop and swerve in Monaco, inside the backroom politics of racing and inside the key conflict, the rivalry between the handsome, heroic Senna and the arrogant, rigid French driver Alain Prost.

The portrait of Senna is amazingly intimate, given that it is built from sports footage and family videos. You see right into his eyes before the start of a race, you pray alongside him as his gloves cover those eyes, and you feel close enough to touch his handsome face.

Senna is one of those amazing larger-than-life characters whose drive and passion are unstoppable and who courts controversy with his unwillingness to back away from what he sees as wrong. Born into a well-to-do family that adored him and supported his childhood love for go-kart racing, Senna moved to England in 1981 to race single-seaters, then broke into Formula One and went on to win three world championships.

He loved the rough conditions of rain and was known for pushing his cars beyond their limits. When his car was stuck in sixth gear during the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, he pushed himself and the car to win. At the end, he begged his father not to touch his aching shoulders but still called him over to embrace and kiss him.

He insisted, despite the pain, on lifting the trophy up high and pouring champagne over his own head — Senna trademarks. The sometimes controversial driver was a champion to the Brazilian people, who keep saying in this film that he is the only good thing about their poverty-stricken land. Senna’s tragic death brought his entire country to its knees, like the death of Lady Diana did in England.

This movie is not without lighthearted moments, such as when Senna teases his girlfriend, a Brazilian TV host, on an outrageously costumed Christmas show.

As a man, Senna had a forceful integrity and a deep faith. It is with great sadness and foreboding that the film’s time slows down for the weekend of his last race in Italy, and play-by-play details put the audience behind the steering wheel with Senna.

He is the last driver to die driving a Formula One car.

Senna is directed by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, who won a BAFTA for The Warrior, and written by Manish Pandey. It is a rewarding and exciting insight into an unforgettable man.

The movie is suitable for women and men, and even for a date.

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