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Posts Tagged ‘Ayrton Senna’

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the more reactionary parts of the UK press (which, come to think of it, is just about all of it) about an imminent TV documentary in which we see somebody die, on screen. I suppose we can argue about the pros and cons of such issues, but the thing that really strikes me as odd is that no-one seems to have made the slightest yelp of complaint about Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a movie documentary in which two people die (not quite on screen but close enough). It’s not really the same thing in all sorts of ways, I suppose, but still…

Senna is, of course, a film about the last decade in the life of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One driver, held by many to be the greatest in the history of the sport. The film opens in 1984, with an inspired drive by Senna in a rain-lashed Monaco Grand Prix bringing him to prominence early in his debut season. From here on it focuses on his rise to the top of his sport, particularly his relationship with the French driver Alain Prost.

The film depicts Senna as a warm, passionate, but also supremely talented driver, utterly dedicated to his sport, and takes pains to contrast him with Prost: a calculating technician, but also brilliant in his way. Senna and Prost are initially team-mates driving for the McLaren team, but what begins as a friendly rivalry rapidly develops into a bitter and acrimonious feud.

As the film moves into the early 1990s, we see Senna increasingly frustrated by the internal politics of the sport – and possibly partiality on the part of the sport’s president, another Frenchman – and the growing dominance of technological innovation over genuine driving skill. A move to the Williams team in 1994 results in Senna driving a car he is deeply uncomfortable with, beset by technical difficulties, leading to a fateful weekend in Imola where the film climaxes.

Now, I’m not a tremendous F1 fan, although I followed the sport for a bit in the mid-to-late 1990s. But I don’t think you need to be familiar with the sport to appreciate Kapadia’s film, either as a story or as a technical achievement. In fact, I would suggest that the crafting of the film as a story eclipses some of what made Ayrton Senna such a special driver – some of his most brilliant drives are barely mentioned in the movie, with the rivalry with Prost occupying most of the screen time. It’s not quite a hagiography of Senna, although the film is barely ever critical of him, and while Prost is not entirely demonised he is presented as Senna’s opponent.

One of the most noticeable and impressive things about the film is that it is composed entirely of archive footage. New interviews make up the soundtrack, but every image on screen was filmed at the time. As a result the film is an immersive experience, although a necessarily limited one: the endless scenes of race footage and people in garages talking intently don’t make for a great deal of tonal variety, but footage from the Senna family archives make up for a great deal. The most startling and arresting sequences in the film are over-the-shoulder shots filmed on board Senna’s car during a race, where you really do get a driver’s eye view and an inkling of the astounding skills these men possessed. They are not as other people, folks; their brains are not wired up the way ours are.

In fact, if I had to make a real criticism of Senna it’s that – by its very nature – it doesn’t really approach the central enigma of a man like Senna: why is a man like this, of such remarkable talent, obsessed with risking his life in such an insanely dangerous sport? The film makes it clear Senna himself didn’t know – or if he did, couldn’t express it – and perhaps this is the reason why. How much of the attraction of Formula One is the danger inherent in the sport, for both the competitors and spectators? I don’t know.

Senna has been doing a roaring trade at the local arthouse cinema, and as a thoroughly engrossing and moving film it deserves to do well. I don’t think it’s quite a great film; it’s a little too limited by its format for that, and it never quite communicates what it was that made Ayrton Senna such an exceptional individual. However, I went to see this film with a good friend who’s both a big Formula One fan and from the same town as Senna himself. In his words, for an F1 fan this film was ‘an ice-cream chocolate cake… amazing’ (he dropped an F-bomb somewhere in there too, but I have standards to keep up). And I thought it was pretty good too.

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