Wednesday, June 22, 2011

SFF Review: Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2011)

You don't have to be a Formula One fan to be brought to tears by Senna. This vibrant, engrossing, powerful and ultimately tragic portrayal of the life and untimely death of beloved sporting icon Ayrton Senna, from British director Asif Kapadia, is documentary filmmaking at its most exciting. Winner of the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentaries at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Senna is essential viewing and will surely feature amongst the finest films of the year.

The film begins with Senna's arrival in Formula One stage in the mid 1980's, after leaving Brazil to compete on the international stage in go-karting. It follows Senna's struggles both on the track against his McLaren-Holden teammate and rival, French World Champion Alain Prost, and off it, against the internal politics of the sport. A fierce competitor, Senna accomplished incredible driving feats (notably holding the record for most pole positions and winning six times at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix) that would rank him amongst the greatest drivers who ever lived. Despite winning three Formula One World Championships between 1988 and 1991, his career was also riddled with numerous scandals and controversies.

Senna is presented as heroic, courageous, spiritual and ruthless. He conquers and transcends Formula One racing to become a global superstar. In private Senna is represented as humble, patriotic and generous, donating millions to his native Brazil and contemplating a life beyond motor racing. His untimely death came in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix. He remains the last driver to die at the wheel of a Formula One car. From the throbbing soundtrack to the exciting race coverage, Senna is a tremendously thrilling cinematic experience like no other.

Senna's story is fashioned as a present drama rather than as a posthumous documentary. We feel like we are witnessing his life happen before our eyes, not as an account of the past. There are no contemporary interviews; Senna's story is told exclusively through masterfully edited archival footage. Kapadia focuses exclusively on Senna, tracking him everywhere. Ranging from first hand footage of his achievements on the track, to feisty drivers meetings, to holidays in Brazil with family and friends, to his celebrity appearances on television programs, using previously unseen footage, we are taken on an incredible journey through his fascinating life.

Senna's story is so absorbing because he is someone we grow to admire and respect over the course of the film. He is such a charismatic and eccentric personality; an inspiration not just for Brazilians, but for sporting fans the world over. He is passionate about his sport and supremely confident in his immense talents (often reckless as a result), but we see him growing increasingly frustrated at what he saw to be political meddling in a world where money and technology had taken over. Before his ill-fated race in 1994, Senna sought strength from the Bible because he was clearly unhappy with the mechanics of his car and feared for his life. At a time when teams were experimenting with new engineering, his sense of foreboding increased when Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying just days before.

Ayrton Senna was a man who considered himself invincible, believing it was by the grace of God that he was possessed with such speed. The epitome of a sporting idol, Senna's passion for competing and for life transcends his incredible driving skills. Those alive to experience his reign as World Champion are never likely to forget the man, but this unforgettable cinematic experience will secure his legacy. Honestly, I have never been so eager to see a film again.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A+)


  1. I keep hearing praise for this film. From Mark Kermode to blogs around here and there. Now I'm interested in seeing this though I have no idea about the world of Formula One racing.

  2. The immense praise is justified. You don't have to know anything about Formula One racing, or even like the sport, to find this a captivating film.

  3. I'm amazed by the amount of praise this is getting - there must be something very special here.

    By the way ... Fox Searchlight finally screened 'Tree of Life' for us ....

    Not going to say anymore.

    Good review Andy!

    Tomorrow ... Battle of the Directors :D

  4. Well written Andy. It's unfortunate that so many people will pass this over because they don't like auto racing, or think its another sport movie. But it really transcends all of that.

    I had serious butterflies the whole time watching the onboard footage of his final lap, and it still gives me chills thinking about it now.

  5. Thank you. I have been telling everyone I know about this film, and I have been met with skepticism in most cases. Very unfortunate.

    I know. Me too. I started gripping the sides of my seat. I got chills, and held my breath. I was expecting it to happen at any second.

  6. Okay, now I have seen Senna, and I can happily say I was blown away by it.

    F1 is a big thing in our house (well, we always end up watching it every Saturday/Sunday), so I know a little bit about the racing side of it, but had no idea that Senna (Spoiler for anyone reading this comment other than Andy) died on the track.

    Seeing that when I watched it last night, I was so surprised that I ended up breaking down in tears. It was a really strange experience feeling that affected by a film.

    My only quip with it was the terrible Hollywood music, but I could look past that.

    Either way, I am glad you loved it so much!

  7. Just got back from seeing it a second time and powering out my review. Absolutely LOVED this film - you built up my expectations Andy, but the movie more than lived up to them.

  8. I have seen it twice now too. The second time I was an emotional wreck.

    I think his story is extraordinary and this is one exhilarating doco - through the incredible footage, the use of the commentary and the accounts of family and colleagues, and a pumping soundtrack. I am so glad you loved it! I had hoped I hadn't hyped it up too much.

    There were a few negative reviews on RT, which concerned me, because I was so sure I could recommend this film to anyone and they would be impressed, which has been the case, actually.

    For me, it was immediately the best film I saw at the SFF (even though A Separation is brilliant too) and it has remained my number #1. Look forward to your review!