Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Film Review: Senna

(Directed by Asif Kapadia, running time 102 minutes)

For those of you lacking in the general knowledge of Formula One racing, one thing that always needs to be emphasized is just how dangerous it can be. The amount of real science and physical and mental effort, not to mention the skill it takes to not only win but avoid a serious injury or worse is part of the back bone of the race. Throughout the late 80s and early 90, a Brazilian driver named Ayrton Senna took the worldwide competition by storm. During this time he quickly raced his way through not only each Grand Pix as they came but also all the behind the scenes turmoil and politics that comes with most multi-million pound events, and become three time Formula One world champion and national hero is his native homeland. Despite being at the top of his game he was tragically killed in crash during San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

However unlike many documentaries that may feel the need to dwell on one’s passing, director Asif Kapadia has adopting a style of film making that instead not only takes the audience back to Senna’s heyday of racing but makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing everything as it unfolded. The entirety of film is made of real footage including official races, interviews, behind the scenes of each events, public appearances and even home movies all the while narrated by a substantial variety of figures ranging from managers, fellow drivers and newscasters who were not only experienced these events first hands but even knew the man himself well. No cutaways, no stationary studios interviews, not even shots of what anything looks like today, just footage of the time and place.

At first this approach may appear to be a series of dull stock footage, yet Kapadia has carefully filtered through what must be hours upon hours of footage in order to get down to the core and for it results in a gripping viewing experience that I wouldn’t say is on par with the most tense and dramatic fictional films as it’s a wholly different kind of experience and no doubt will be for many, even better. With this footage the audience can get a close enough picture of the inner workings of Formula One. Senna might have been a top F1 driver, but to make it there it appeared to take plenty of effort beyond just winning races. Even though he raced with McLaren, we quickly became at odds with his fellow McLaren driver the French Alain Prost, also a multiple F1 world champion, which at one point turned into a bitter rivalry. On top of this Senna was very vocal about some of the rules and on and off track issues, in many instances crashing and in another even being disqualified temporally suspended.

Yet even though is may seem this is a documentary made for the Formula One fan, beyond just the structure of the inner workings of the motor-sport we are given an insight to the man himself and those around him, often at times making footage seem almost character driven that while at odds with many, there is still underlying respect. However those who may wonder about his personal life, either due to a directorial decision, lack of footage or out of respect, little is actually known about the man off the track, with the documentary kick starting just as he enters Formula One. On hand this may seem limiting to those less enthusiastic about the motor-sport while on the other hand it doesn’t get bogged down with such details that may make the film appear a little too overly done at times, not being as if its trying to hard make the audience care. Off the track though, the film doesn’t skim on the crisis in Brazil, something that was very important about his public image, that in times of need is what helped make him seem like a beacon of hope in Brazil, in order to show others just why those in the F1 and elsewhere considered him an important figure outside of just being good at his passion. The documentary doesn’t paint him as some messiah, instead just how and why this man had become so popular. The narration itself is accompanied with a brief small subtitle as each give their story. The variety of the narration is what gives the tone legs, in that the contrasting view points allow a little more balance in what is at the end of the day a tribute as well.

Senna was deeply religious but also very much aware of the dangers. In fact, even though there hasn’t been a race related death since 1994, Kapadia also felt the need to portray this by not holding back with footage of other incidents such as Rubens Barrichello literally flying into the sidelines. Despite these occasional harrowing instances, they make the film more real than it already is. In regards to his aforementioned death behind the wheel, it actually (and in all honesty thankfully) doesn’t dwell on it as up to this point the film has been about his life as a racer and anything else might have seemed almost unnecessarily tarnishing. While we do get visuals on the brutal crash and finally his (elaborate) funeral, it is cut up with shots of each of those who attended and them with the man himself. Its pretty emotional stuff.

Without going overly sentimental and getting distracted by the personal details, this may seem less inviting to those other than F1 fans. However I feel Kapadia has not made this case by selecting and structuring the footage and narration that makes Senna inviting yet ultimately compelling. Some may not know much about the man himself, but this documentary does its best to do just that. As for F1 fans, its a no brainer as what we have here is a slice of motor sport history, one that I feel is a great viewing experience for all.

With narration from Ron Denis, Frank Williams, Alain Prost and many others.

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