Intelligent sports films are rare, which is why Asif Kapadia’s Senna is a must-watch for any fan of the genre.
The documentary traces his rise as a modern sporting icon, while noting the effect his religious faith and personal conflicts had on the career of the racing genius; from his emergence as a prodigious go-karter in Brazil and his subsequent move to Europe and Formula One, to his peak years when he was competing against three other hugely talented drivers.
As he grows with each race, so does the viewer; we slowly form a bond with the exuberant, boyish likeably-flawed and ferociously competitive character onscreen.
Senna’s biggest draw is that you do not have to be an F1 fan to enjoy it. It has a powerful narrative and an engaging frankness that makes for easy yet compelling viewing. The sheer brilliance of the film lies in the way the plot builds up, like a live-action film.
It is entirely constructed from archival footage; no scenes are re-enacted, and all the visuals and commentary are original. Watching reality unfold before your eyes makes it somehow more gripping than a feature film might have been.
A recurring theme is his irritation with the shadow-boxing in Formula One, a notoriously politicised competition then, as it is now. The villain of the piece was French driver Alain Prost, whose rivalry with Senna laid the basis for modern motorsports fandom.
As with every contest, the rivalry between Senna and Prost inspired both to exceed themselves, although it strained their relationship immeasurably; particularly since they were driving for the same team (McLaren).
The movie’s classic moment comes midway, providing an excellent insight into Senna’s mindset. During an interview, Senna vigorously trashes the notion that he is an overly aggressive driver, posing a danger to others on the circuit. He argued that settling for 2nd place was anathema to their tribe.
His all-or-nothing attitude is best summarized by this epic quote : “If you no longer go for gap that exists, you are no longer racing driver!” It was beyond his comprehension that some racers could deliberately coast to 4th or 5th place, just to nick the points needed for a title win. From Portugal to Monaco to Brazil, his sheer determination to win and mental strength saw him bloody-mindedly chase down, and close, one gap after another.
The buildup to Senna’s death that Sunday at Imola is depicted in painfully raw detail, as the news of his death shatters his fans and countrymen. Nineteen years later, it can still prickle the skin. His crash was a clarion call for safety reforms in motorsports.
Car safety was taken up on a war footing, albeit belatedly; the Senna crash wasn’t the first that weekend, and it wasn’t even the first during that race. But Ayrton Senna was the last driving casualty in Formula One.
Perhaps the movie’s sole fault is its sheer one-sidedness : we are left wondering what Prost thinks of Senna, or the fights Senna picked with other drivers (notably Eddie Irvine). Or in the several great Senna moments that have been missed, like his surge from 5th to 1st in a single lap during the 1993 European Grand Prix. However, there’s still enough material to satisfy fans and casual viewers alike.
Several times the packed auditorium burst into applause, unmindful of the era or the inevitable ending they already knew would follow. Senna does justice to the memory of its protagonist and is well worth a watch.
Incidentally, the documentary was being screened at the Tiger’s Paw Film Festival – India’s first dedicated fest for sports films. An innovative concept that hopefully catches on soon!