An utterly gripping documentary that transcends its subject matter and the restrictions of the medium to play out like the very best kind of narrative film, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life, career and tragic passing of Brazilian Formula One racer Ayerton Senna has been heralded – and rightfully so – as one of the most exhilarating, moving and quite simply best films of 2011. Chronicling the life and career of this influential sporting figure, the film is an epic man versus world tale about family, politics, patriotism, religion and racing with a deeply human heart at its centre. Even those with no interest in Formula One – and I count myself amongst such people – will be captivated by this phenomenal motion picture; one that commands your attention with spectacular excitement and devastating emotion.
Compiled entirely from archival footage and accompanied by voiceover narration from the people who knew the man best, Senna has a viscerally present quality, as the races, political squabbling and human dramas seem unfold right in front of our faces. Through the careful selection and ordering of his footage, Kapadia builds Ayrton Senna from his early days as a go-kart racer into a compelling protagonist – a legend capable of near impossible feats, but who always remains identifiably, imperfectly human.
Kapadia races us through Senna’s early career – driving first for Tolland, then for Lotus – before eventually settling in with Senna at McLaren Mercedes during the late nineteen eighties, a team that would help Senna win multiple championships, but also where he would become engaged in a bitter and dangerous rivalry with fellow racer Alain Prost. Forced to struggle not only against Prost but against the politics and bureaucracy of the sport, Senna never the less remained an unbeatable force of the F1 track, and the inherently thrilling footage of his nail-biting races is given an extra kick by the knowledge of how hard he had to fight to win.
But Senna is not just about Ayrton the racer, but also about Ayrton the man. A deeply spiritual human being, we also watch how Senna’s Christian faith intertwine with his ambition, while at the same time we come to understand the vitally important part the proudly patriotic figures plays in Brazilian national identity during a time of national social unrest. Kapadia weaves and edits his footage with incredible skill, and with the aid of his narrators (and the real life charm, humility and philanthropy of Senna himself) imbues the life of this man with both enormous historical import and a relatable human spirit.
It’s a story technique that pays immeasurable dividends. Like the best fictional action films, Kapadia knows that true tension comes when you care about men and women putting their lives in danger. In Senna, you are invested in Senna as a human being, and the sense of jeopardy and excitement is all the more palpable because of it. At the same time, the power of Kapadia’s relatively simple direction cannot be overstated. Through editing and music – the score by Antonia Pinio strikes the perfect tone – Kapadia commands his audience with real-world tension. Just as there was to Senna himself, there is spiritual quality to this movie that elevates it to the rankings of one of the best films of the year. It is a movie that will seize audiences and move them to their core, regardless of their initial interest in the subject matter.
For Ayrton Senna, racing was a religious experience. For film fans, the movie about his life is just as almighty.