Whatever else can be said about the highly-rated (91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) documentary Senna, it’s impossible not to be impressed by how director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have managed to craft a biographical film completely out of archive footage and home movies and videos. Without recourse to interviews or a narrator telling us what we’re seeing, they have crafted a coherent story about Brazilian Formula One race-car driver Ayrton Senna. That the film veers sharply toward hagiography doesn’t in the least detract from the impressiveness of that accomplishment. Nor will I deny that the film carries an emotional resonance not generally associated with this type of film.
I do not, however, entirely buy into the “You don’t have to be into Formula One racing to love this movie” arguments. I think it’s quite possible to like it or admire it without that, but that it won’t mean more to racing fans and Senna’s admirers is an idea that reeks of faux-ingenuousness. I knew enough about racing to recognize some names from an earlier era—Fangio, Sterling Moss, Jackie Stewart. I also went in aware of the skill this kind of driving requires, as well as something of the backroom politics of it all. But I do not follow racing, and had, in fact, only dimly heard of Senna prior to this movie. And while I liked Senna, I’m not about to plunge into studying up on the sport.
It helped the filmmakers no end that the Senna story comes completely with a built-in and well-documented rivalry with French driver Alain Prost. In fact, the increasing rivalry between them resulted in a pair of races where the two drivers collided. The film makes much of the growing acrimony between the Senna and Prost, but is a little light—perhaps because of the narrator-free approach—in making their early friendship and ultimate fondness for each other quite as clear.
What the film can’t quite do is make Senna into a fully formed character. We learn about his privileged background, his obsession with driving, his strong belief in God, his stubbornness, his fondness for fishing, his charitable work for impoverished Brazilian children etc. But do we ever get beyond the public Senna? Not really. There’s a sense of something buried deeply behind those intense eyes, but the film never gets to what that might be. Perhaps it’s not possible to get there. Maybe no one ever did. Or maybe what we’re allowed to see is all there was. And, yes, it’s quite possible that this enigmatic aspect of Senna makes him just that much more intriguing to a lot of people.
Even with that reservation, I have to say that Senna is compelling viewing. It’s not easy to edit existing footage into a narrative and have it touch the viewer. I can’t say I wept unashamedly on numerous occasions—as quite a few people who saw the film have claimed to have done—but I was certainly moved by Senna’s story of triumph and tragedy. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and disturbing images.