Review: Senna


Senna posterWhen racing driver Ayrton Senna died in a crash in 1994, it brought to an end the career of a three-time Formula One world champion, largely considered to be one of the greatest drivers in the world. BAFTA award winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia has made a career out of making films about outsiders, and Senna makes for a potentially interesting subject. A public figure for much of his adult life, Senna attempts to explore the personal life and career of one of the most famous people to get behind the wheel of a car.

Comprised solely of archival footage and soundbites, Senna’s story is a well-documented one. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth in a country beset by poverty, Senna’s career was defined by a compulsion to be the best. Taking every setback personally, we follow his career through his time with various F1 teams, his rivalry with Alain Prost, his controversial antics on track and off and ultimately his untimely death behind the wheel of the car.

Much has been made of Senna not using any new footage or interviews to tell its tale, and on some levels this is an amazing achievement in archival editing. However, as a documentary this is about as fascinating as watching cars go round and round a track, and if you aren’t interested in racing, it is difficult to find a handle on what makes Senna so fascinating as a character. There is undoubtedly much to explore in Senna’s life, from his inner passion to his outspoken championing of the cause of poverty in his native Brazil. Yet the journey to the inevitable is a long one, with little for the uninitiated to find worth salvaging in the remains of footage and Kapadia adds little value to this compilation in an often sterile fan film. Why is Senna worth examining almost two decades after his death? From this documentary, one would be led to believe that it was because of his ambition, but the film keeps its subject at arm’s length.

Every time a race car driver steps into a car, there is a certain danger that he or she will not be stepping out of it. In the recent British documentary TT3D:  Closer to the Edge, examining the dangerous Isle of Mann motorbike races where people virtually turn up to die, there was a very real sense that every moment could be the end for the participants. Here there is that same sense of fatalism, but without the corresponding compulsion that drives an otherwise ordinary rich kid to want to be the fastest man alive.

The Reel Bits
Although much can be said for the research and editing skills on display in Senna, it could have been just as effective as an hour-long television special, with very little gained from this documentary that a few trips to Wikipedia and YouTube couldn’t accomplish. For race fans only.

Senna is released in Australia on 11 August 2011 from Universal.