By the time he died at the San Marino Grand Prix at the age of 34 he had won 41 Grands Prix, finished on the podium no less than 80 times and had become a three-time Formula One world champion. A family man and a man of God, he was arguably the biggest celebrity in a country obsessed with football. But who was Ayrton Senna? Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna is culled from thousands of hours of footage including never-before-seen videos from the Formula One archive; we hear from his team-mates, rivals and family and get rare glimpses at his home-life, but we only get the slightest idea of the man behind the legend.
Skimming over his early meteoric rise to stardom, the film’s first half focuses on the Brazilian’s faith and his dramatic rivalry with teammate Alain Prost as well as his clashes with the sport’s governing body. We follow the highs and lows of that dynamic as Senna is driven off the track by Prost in a seemingly cynical move to stop the chance of him winning the championship. His constant opposition from FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre noticeably takes its toll on Senna, who seems to grow weary in his final years as the technological war waged between teams of engineers and officials starts eating away at what he enjoyed most in life: pure racing.
Throughout this whole story, our gaze is constantly fixed on Senna. Kapadia never shows the faces of the interviewees, keeping the audience’s attention on the man himself. In some way, the effect created is something cinematic and immediate, far from the tired sports retrospective it so easily could have been. The momentum builds as the seasons progress, aided by Antonio Pinto and John Powell’s driving score, propelling the film in a final act where everything tragically comes to a screeching halt for Senna.
Naturally, this is a film that appeals to racing fans but Senna will take casual viewers by surprise with its excitement and extraordinary impact. There’s something simply fascinating about seeing someone as talented as Senna excel in his chosen profession. Watching him speak candidly about his car, his competitors and his team is completely refreshing considering how reluctant modern sportsmen are to go ‘off-message’ when talking to the press. Perhaps that is why the film seems to get under Senna’s skin when in reality we only see the man as he was viewed by the public. For all the footage of press conferences, interviews and backstage glimpses, we have no indication what he was like at home or with his friends and honestly, we are probably better off that way: no man could ever live up to the enormous legacy that still remains almost two decades later. In that way, Senna is a film that perfectly captures the legend of an enormously talented driver.