The Brazilian Formula One racing car champion Ayrton Senna was a well-born superstar whose 10-year career ended at age 34 with a fatal accident in San Marino in 1994. Director Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Senna” covers the driver’s life from his early go-kart days right through to the end and dispenses with the usual talking-heads approach.
Friends, family, colleagues, and sports commentators were interviewed but are heard only in voice-over. Because Senna, who had movie-star looks and a knack for self-promotion, was filmed continuously throughout his career, virtually all of the film’s footage is archival. Kapadia’s research team had over 15,000 hours of footage to draw on, from 10 countries.
Will “Senna” appeal to people who don’t know or care about Formula One racing? That’s certainly the thinking behind it, but I’m not so sure. Because the film is almost exclusively connected to the racing, with Senna’s off-track life slipped in almost as filler, the cumulative effect is somewhat wearying – life as a series of races.
Lots of people, including Senna himself, talk about his deep and uncommon religiosity, but it’s mostly just talk. On the circuit, he seems as cutthroat as the next guy. The film also doesn’t adequately explore the way Senna pioneered, if that’s the word, the branding of his image. (It’s surprising that he never acted in movies.) Nor, except in passing, does it allude to his private life, his girlfriends, his relationship with his siblings. He seems to exist, at least in this movie, entirely as a creature of the racetrack.
Senna’s rivalries are on full display, especially the long-running one with French champion Alain Prost. There are some thrilling you-are-there sequences shot inside the racing car from his POV as he zooms around the tracks. It’s like watching a video game made real.
Not surprisingly, a documentary constructed entirely from newsreel footage proves inadequate to the task of sounding the depths of someone as complicated or driven (pun intended) as Senna. What makes a person repeatedly risk his life in this way? Senna is, perhaps inevitably, an enigma, but he’s such a standout enigma that you want to know more about what makes him tick than this film is capable of offering up. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some strong language and disturbing images.)