When setting out to make “Senna,” his documentary about the namesake racecar driver, director Asif Kapadia scored a major coup when he gained access to the entire Formula One archive. The footage that Kapadia unearthed turned out to be a goldmine revealing Ayrton Senna’s entire professional career, including races, meetings, press conferences and interviews (with Senna, his peers and closest associates). Together with home movies and broadcast excerpts from Brazil (Senna’s home country), Kapadia and his team have managed to create an astonishing tribute to the driver considered a national hero in Brazil, comprised entirely of already-existing footage. Indeed, “Senna” stands as a triumph of Kapadia and his collaborators’ knack for story craft and their ability to sort through a staggering volume of material and piece it together into a unified, powerful narrative.

The only contemporary elements recorded for the documentary are the layers of interviews that add context and commentary to the unfolding footage. As Kapadia charts Senna’s Formula One career from his 1984 debut to his tragic 1994 accident, we hear from motorsport journalists, including veteran Brazilian writer Reginaldo Leme, The Guardian’s Richard Williams, and former ESPN writer John Bisignano, along with professionals like Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, both of whom owned racing teams that Senna drove for, along with Alain Prost, Senna’s legendary rival. The remembrances they and several others – including Senna’s mother and sister – share provide richness to the characterization of Senna that emerges from the footage.

The man at the documentary’s center is rife with contradictions. A devout Catholic, Senna frequently cited his belief in God as his driving force and likened the experience of auto racing to spiritual epiphany. Off the track, Senna expressed deep concern for the impoverished plight of many of his countrymen, particularly the underprivileged children growing up in poverty (an end title informs us that a school founded in Senna’s name in 1995 has since educated 12 million Brazilian children). At the same time, Senna was no saint either. He enjoyed his lavish comforts (he even hailed from a prosperous Sao Paolo family) and his celebrity as he shrewdly cultivated his image, whether as a national hero, a wronged underdog or a boyish scamp. And Senna was not above the egotistical trappings of competition either, as his tense relationship with Prost (who won four Formula One titles to Senna’s three) bears out. In one sequence, Senna is accused of deliberately sabotaging Proust’s chances of winning a crucial race, and we note the undercurrent of bitterness that charge even their off-track interactions. As a result, we don’t like or dislike Senna so much as admire him for his confidence and talent.

Thanks to Kapadia’s exhaustive, illuminating use of Formula One archival footage along with Gregers Sall and Chris King’s skillful editing, “Senna” reaps maximum emotional wattage from every beat of its story. Because of the proliferation of video cameras during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the filmmakers luxuriate in a wealth of available coverage and camera angles to document every major event, complete with close-ups, reverse- and reaction-shots that have the visceral continuity of any made-from-scratch racing movie. Most spectacular is the extensive use of racing footage taken from cameras mounted just behind the drivers’ seats – it has the feel of an exhilarating video game, till we remember that this is real and so are the casualties.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Written by: Manish Pandey
Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Viviane Senna, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Jackie Stewart, Jean-Marie Balestre


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