Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Senna (2010) – a play in three acts

Yes, it is a documentary about sports. Yes, it is about the elitist world of Formula 1. But boy am I happy that this film was made instead of a 100m $ Hollywood bio-pic with Antonio Banderas playing the part of Ayrton Senna, as was intended one year after his death. And any non-enthusiast of Formula 1 should not be deterred from watching this remarkable piece of real life human story, marvellously assembled from over 15,000 hours (yes, thousand!) of footage.

Senna (2010) - Trailer

WARNING: I am a Formula 1 fan. I was, as my father, a Senna fan. I still have a vivid memory of watching the doctors swarming around his car, with the helicopter painfully waiting on the track, during that fateful San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 even though I was only 5 years old at the time. All this might be a bit subjective.

So, can you squeeze a man’s life story into 105 minutes and make it enjoyable and emotional at the same time? You can’t. But BAFTA winning director Asif Kapadia (mostly preoccupied with human drama in extreme environments) with the help of writer/producer Manish Pandey have managed to create such a rhythmic and fluid story that makes even the most die-hard fans forget the stories that didn’t make it in the film.

The life of Ayrton Senna has all the characteristics of a three act play. And the film applies itself to this template. There are the early years, the ambition and the rise to supremacy followed by the bitter rivalry in the spotlight and the tragic ending.

Ayrton Senna, Brazilian born racing driver starts his career in karting. He moves to Europe to start driving in Formula 1. His parents pray to God for him before he leaves. The adventure begins. The film takes us through his early career, his first races in Formula 1 with Toleman and Lotus. He then takes it to another level in 1988 when he reaches McLaren and is teamed up with the veteran frenchman Alain Prost. These are the glory years, but not ones without struggles. Still relatively innocent, Senna confronts the politics of the sport and although his rivalry on the track with Prost caught the media heat, his behind-the-scenes quarrels with Jean-Marie Balestre (also a frenchman) are equally as interesting. After winning three World Championship titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991 he finally leaves McLaren for the 1994 season. His career and life are abruptly ended at only 34 years old at the San Marino Grand Prix.

On the face of it, you could call Senna a documentary film about a sports personality. But you’d be wrong. Firstly, Kapadia rejects the use of “talking head interviews” and instead, the audio commentary is provided by original broadcasts from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s with the addition of a few newer recordings. This approach is only natural, considering the amount of film reel accumulated over the years in one of the most watched sports on the planet. (Thank you Bernie Ecclestone for opening the vaults!)

Archive footage from the Senna family is also used, allowing the film to have their blessing as well. It shows Senna on family holidays, in between seasons. Possibly one of the least seen faces of Senna is his care for the Brazilian people. They see him and adore him because he embodies their collective hope for a better future amidst the poverty and the social problems in Brazil. His charitable efforts only match this hope.

Senna was also a devout Christian and he cared immensely for the other drivers. Kapadia’s flair for drama shows how, when one other driver has an accident and Senna sees the doctors performing resuscitation manoeuvres, he cannot stand to watch it and leaves his garage. While watching such a stirring scene, one of many, it can be difficult to realise that these are real events captured on film. Not reconstructions. Not acting. And upon having this realisation, the quality of the film becomes truly apparent.

For fans, this film is truly not to be missed also because of the never before seen footage of drivers briefings before races and the feud between Senna and Balestre. The latter is actually the villain in this story, not Senna’s direct rival, Prost. He is portrayed as pompous and ruthless – “The best decision is my decision”.

We come, of course, to the actual racing. Seeing the in-board shot of Senna’s fire-breathing 1,200 hp turbo-charged McLaren going one-handed (they did have manual gearboxes then) on the twisting streets of Monaco in a cinema is truly visceral. His genius and maverick character behind the wheel are shown extensively, especially in the first part of the film.

The third act covers the weekend preceding his death. Friday. Rubens Barrichello, a young Brazilian driver and Senna’s protégé has a terrifying accident. Saturday. Roland Ratzenberger, an Austrian driver, is killed after a 300 km/h crash. Sunday.

This final piece of film is very emotional and dignified. The commentary is kept to a minimum with images from the crash, the medics, the people involved in Senna’s life and the funeral in Brazil, attended by millions of people, all combined in telling the sad story of a tragic and untimely death.

There is much more I could say, both about Ayrton and about the film, but unfortunately, I am not as talented or capable as Kapadia in condensing information. I urge you all to go see this film, in a cinema if possible. It tells a great story, about a larger-than-life character, about passion, about ambition, about kindness and about death. After all, it did leave most of the grown men in the theatre sobbing at the end.

Would I see it again?

I said I am a fan! Do you even have to ask?

TopGear - A touching tribute to Ayrton Senna's career. I recommend watching this as well for a bit more racing action.

rutzky, sa te puna dracu' sa comentezi ca iar scriu in engleza :)


  1. ha, azi m-am apucat sa-l scriu si eu, amu gat. avem cateva puncte comune

  2. cool, sa fie parerea unui fan si a unui non-fan. astept cu interes

  3. uite recenzia mea

  4. nu am ce comenta. si eu am incercat sa caut multe recenzii si toate, de la Top Gear pana la The Guardian sau Empire, apreciaza calitatea filmului. chiar sunt momente in care uitam ca e un documentar si ma lasam purtat de "personaje". de ce nu postezi si aici?

  5. ah, si ce mi-a placut iar au fost anumite citate care par dintr-un scenariu de film.."Senna has a small problem. He thinks he can't kill himself"