LAFF 2011 Review: SENNA
Writer: Manish Pandey
Director: Asif Kapadia
Asif Kapadia’s film on Formula One racing star Ayrton Senna, simply titled SENNA, is both one of the most technically ambitious documentaries in recent memory, and one of the most finely put-together. Culled from thousand of hours of footage, much of it never before seen, Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have crafted a stirring portrait of a man and the sport he loved. Audiences are by no means required to have a knowledge base on either Senna or Formula One racing, as SENNA is both accessible and endlessly engaging.
The story of Senna and his incredible career (he was a three-time Formula One World Champion and is still considered one of the finest drivers to ever compete in Formula One) is not well-known in the United States – in fact, director Kapadia was repeatedly told that American audiences would have no interest in the Brazilian racer’s story – but that unfamiliarity, oddly enough, serves the film well. SENNA is already an enormously human story, but when approached cold, it’s even more striking and strangely haunting. Though the film lacks a tight focus (it, generally put, covers the many highlights of Senna’s career in Formula One) it is so seamlessly crafted from a mix of archival footage and new voiceovers from a number of people essential to Senna’s life and career that it’s easy to forgive any missteps when it comes to chopping down a multi-faceted life for maximum cinematic simplicity.
By all accounts, Ayrton Senna was a horse of a different color in his sport – he was outspoken when it came to safety measures, he would frequently stop racing to help a downed driver, and he never let the politics of Formula One keep him from expressing his opinions – and it was both his humanity and his pride that made him a hero to many people. The film frequently shows the impact Senna had on his fellow Brazilians; he was tremendously beloved, a beacon of hope for an impoverished and unhappy country. When he finally wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in SENNA, it provides one of the most emotional and touching pay-offs in recent film memory, documentary or not.
A golden boy, Senna rose to Formula One fame after stints at karting and open-wheel racing. Senna’s career was marked with a series of high highs and low lows – from his seemingly easily won titles to nearly career-ending clashes and crashes. Senna was a devout Catholic, but his steadfast belief in God often led others to speculate that he believed he was somehow above death. Charming and cocky, daring and driven, Senna was a captivating figure, and that all translates beautifully to the screen.
A number of attempts have been made to give Senna’s story the feature film treatment – most notably, in 2001, when Antonio Banderas was attached to play the racer for the big screen – but none of them have ever panned out. While SENNA is undoubtedly the definitive take on Ayrton’s life so far, the documentary presents such a wonderfully rich character and life that it’s nearly impossible to not want to see more, particularly in terms of one of most well-documented aspects of his life. The relationship between Senna and his one-time friend and teammate Alain Prost is transfixing – their frequently emotional power play threatened both their livelihoods and very lives on a number of occasions. It’s the sort of true life human drama that elevates documentaries above fictional films – too deep, too powerful, too layered to be made up. If Senna’s life should finally go the feature route, his rivalry with Prost should serve as its center, as fine a story about friendship splintered than any other out there.
SENNA is simply a remarkable film about a remarkable life. Kapadia and Pandey have created a documentary that proves the persistence of a good story goes far beyond the method in which it is told, though their work in putting together SENNA is some of the finest in recent documentary history. SENNA is not a film just for documentary aficionados or sports fans or those familiar with Ayrton Senna, it is a film for anyone willing to fall in love with what has been, what is lost, and what remains.
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