There’s some poetic justice in the fact that it takes at least a half-hour, if at all, into “Senna” to realize director Asif Kapadia is only going to use archival footage to tell the story of the legendary Formula One driver since of course Ayrton Senna’s own feats on the racetrack were always best appreciated when he was miles ahead. It’s one of the many ways that the doc is modeled after Senna’s approach to driving — Kapadia’s film is relentless, occasionally idiosyncratic and bound to be wildly popular as it commemorates one of Brazil’s most celebrated exports.
However, “Senna” is an interesting biography not only because it limits itself to 15,000 hours of video already on record with interviews sporadically used as voiceover throughout, but also since it is far less about the man than the driver, which expands its entertainment value considerably while marginalizing in some sense the actual amount you learn about the title character. There are bits and pieces about his personal life, highlighted by clips of him on yachts or motorcycling with a new girlfriend, his charity work for his home country (alluded to with a tossed off mention by his sister and a card in the end credits about its success), or allusions to his strong religious beliefs, but for the most part, the film shares the same view as Senna did behind the wheel, with only the asphalt in front of him.
Indeed, that might be the most accurate way to tell Senna’s life story since his commitment to racing is unquestioned. We’re first introduced to the driver as a teen in a speed suit and a bright yellow helmet, racing around a track in a go-kart and talking over the clip about “pure racing [when there was] never any politics.” As we soon find out, politics were just about the only thing that could beat Senna after he entered Formula One and became an instant sensation. And the other, Senna’s great rival, the French driver Alain Prost, is what really gives the film its drive.
Racing fans are already familiar with the impact of Senna’s sparring with Prost had on the sport’s popularity during the mid to late ’80s and for the film, it conveniently provides an enemy to root against, even if you’re completely uninterested in Formula One. Known as “the professor” for his extensive planning and shrewd politicking of race officials, Prost is quickly established as Senna’s opposite, whether it was in the measured way he raced or, as is pointed out in parallel clips, his lack of game with the ladies as demonstrated by his come-ons to a BBC reporter that come off a bit lecherous when compared with Senna’s innocent flirtations with a Japanese reporter. (That the two are eventually paired on the same McLaren racing team only further fuels their rivalry.)
Kapadia, whose previous experience as a director has largely been with narrative features like the sumptuous epic “The Warrior” and the forgettable Sarah Michelle Gellar thriller “The Return,” isn’t exactly subtle in how he forecasts the ways he’s going to please his audience, either. But “Senna” is so well-crafted, from its emotionally wrenching bookends to the seamless way the film simplifies the unexpectedly byzantine backroom machinations of the sport that the driver was so frustrated by (many of which are caught with almost shocking fly-on-the-wall footage), it’s hard to argue the director and a team of editors hasn’t achieved the closest approximation of Senna’s dream of “pure racing” onscreen.
Speed nuts will definitely be wowed by the over-the-shoulder shots of Senna cruising on an open track at a velocity unknown to most mere mortals, but it’s the film’s ability to move in other ways that make it a special film for all audiences.
“Senna” does not yet have U.S. distribution.