According to one commentator in this documentary about the Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna, “There is only one way to describe his style: fast.” There are a few ways to describe this film: moving, gripping, extraordinary, very fast, and a fitting testimony to the memory of a remarkable man.
In case you were wondering, no, you don’t have to have the slightest interest in Formula 1, motor racing or even sport to enjoy Senna. Although I vaguely remember Ayrton Senna’s name and the news reports of his death, I had previously not given two hoots about his chosen sport. After seeing the film I wondered if I might not have been missing out. It turns out Asif Kapadia, the director of the film, didn’t follow the sport either before he was recruited. Perhaps this gave him the necessary distance to focus on the story, rather than get lost in the minutiae of technology and lap times.
In case you don’t know the story, Ayrton Senna was born into a wealthy and pious Brazilian family. He started racing in go karts at young age, before working his way up to race for the rather underwhelming Formula 1 team, Toleman in 1984 at the age of 24. At that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, the hardest and most prestigious of all Grand Prix, Senna put in such an outstanding performance that he was snapped up by the rather better Lotus-Renault team. From there he went on to change teams twice more, win the world championship three times before tragically dying in a crash ten years after his first Formula 1 race.
Any Formula 1 driver lives life in the fast lane, but what made Senna different? A couple of things spring to mind. Firstly, despite his privileged upbringing, Senna was something of an outsider. He was Brazilian while most drivers were from Europe – specifically, he appeared to suffer from some seemingly bizarre judgements at the hands of the French racing authorities. Secondly, Senna was a firm believer in God, an attitude which was an integral part of his approach to driving.
Kapadia uses archive footage (including some taken from YouTube) to piece together Senna’s life. Luckily, being a prominent media figure, there was lots to choose from – especially once Bernie Ecclestone had given them the run of the F1 archive in Biggin Hill. The team tried to use footage that hadn’t been shown before, and according to the film’s producer Eric Fellner, the amount of footage shot towards the end of Senna’s life meant that they could apply movie techniques to the footage, “we could literally have a mid shot, a reverse, a two-shot profile and a high-angled helicopter shot if we wanted.” Senna also rejects the usual documentary technique of using talking heads to tell the story which powers the story along in seventh gear. This pace is helped along by a score from Antonio Pinto, previously responsible for City of God.
Most fans are probably depressed and a little bored by the politics that gives their sports such a bad name, but Senna manages to make the manoeuvring and back stabbing around Formula 1 utterly fascinating. Our hackles are raised at outrageous travesties of justice from the F1 authorities. Then there is his great rivalry with the racing ace Alain Prost, a man who’s cool command of the wheel was the ideal opposite to Senna’s wild abandon.
Ayrton Senna was certainly angered by the politics too, but he had a higher purpose to keep him going: his faith. It’s somewhat tricky to portray a man of great faith in the modern, post-Dawkins world, but Kapadia manages it. Driving for Senna is a religious experience; after one race he explains, “Suddenly, I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel… I was way over the limit but I was still able to find more.”
According to the IMDB storyline synopsis Senna is revered as a saint in Brazil, and if we take Leonard Cohen’s definition of a saint as someone who “gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance”, then he fits the bill. The footage from Senna’s on-car camera is a dizzying depiction of a man who is throwing himself down the track… into life. My only problem with the film is that I too began to see Senna as a saint and wondered if we might not have a bit more balance.
The good news for Formula 1 fans (and men) is they don’t have to worry about taking non-fans (or girlfriends and wives) to the cinema to see this film. There is something for everyone – Senna was so handsome, charming and that fans and non-fans, men and women, will all be enchanted and enthralled by the film. This film will be one of those documentary hits along the lines of Touching the Void or Man on Wire. Virtually flawless.