Tragedy in a fast, and furious, sport
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
"Senna" is what film critics might call a TMSI movie, as in: Trust me, see it.
And some viewers will have to go on trust, because on paper, they may not reflexively consider a documentary about Formula One auto racing their particular cup of petroleum-based product. But "Senna" succeeds precisely because it doesn't focus on racing per se, instead profiling Formula One driver Ayrton Senna da Silva, three-time world champion, Brazilian national hero and altogether superb young man whose promise was extinguished far too early when he died on the track in 1994 at age 34.
Another reason "Senna" works is that director Asif Kapadia eschews the usual heartstring-plucking childhood scenes that have become a hallmark of biographical documentaries. Instead, he plunges viewers directly into the white-knuckle action of high-test auto racing, giving them a taste of its adrenaline and appeal with jittery driver's-eye-view footage. Thus primed, we proceed to learn that Senna began his love of driving with go-karting, graduating to Formula One in the 1980s, when he won his first Grand Prix and commenced a career-long rivalry with teammate Alain Prost.
As fellow drivers for the McLaren team, Senna and Prost resembled two scorpions in a jar as they battled for world supremacy each year, with Prost - a master of point-counting and political infighting - willing to undermine the younger Senna at every turn (literally!), and Senna, an idealistic devout Catholic, pleading with racing authorities to regularize their rules. (Be warned: "Senna" includes disquieting images of serious accidents.)
The blustery back-and-forth is entertaining and at times infuriating, but what makes "Senna" essential viewing is the propulsive education it provides in one of the world's most popular sports, and the introduction it provides to an extraordinary athlete and human being. Throughout most of his career, Senna spoke affectingly about the sense of spiritual peace he felt while racing, a meditative state the film gives viewers a glimpse of with long, hypnotic sequences shot from behind the wheel. As he matured, he became a huge national icon in his native Brazil, where he grew up in a privileged Sao Paulo family. "Senna" may not be a rags-to-riches story, but it nonetheless celebrates resolve, hard work, integrity and guts. Expertly crafted and urgently paced, "Senna" has everything a major motion picture needs to win over audiences: riveting action, heartbreaking drama and a protagonist everyone can root for.
It also happens to have the label "documentary," which will surely keep some viewers away. When it comes to "Senna," forget labels. TMSI. All the way.
In English and Portuguese with English subtitles. Contains some profanity and disturbing images.