Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Ledendary Senna

Earlier this week, I attended an advanced screening of the new documentary Senna. This film, directed by Asif Kapadia, depicts the career of arguably the best driver in Formula One history, Ayrton Senna. Of course, some of the impact of this film is lost on those who do not follow F1 racing, and even more on those who, like myself, don't really know the difference between F1 and Nascar. However, it is a testament to this film that, even without any prior knowledge or interest, I was able to connect with and find inspiration in the documentary.

This documentary is a masterpiece. It is constructed like a fictional piece. There are no talking heads; Kapadia uses the audio of interviews over archival footage. The amount of footage collected for this documentary is amazing as is the variety of sources, from news footage to home videos to in-car footage that shows the audience exactly what Senna saw as he was driving. These combined factors made the film captivating; the unique footage was incredible and the lack of face-to-face interviews never disconnected the audience from the story, which talking heads often do.

I also say that the film is similar to a fictional piece becasue it does so much to build the character of Ayrton Senna, so that an audience of non-racing fans have something to grab onto. Senna, who looks like the test-tube baby of Tom Hardy and John Cassavettes, is an ambitious young driver from Brazil. Kapadia puts special emphasis on the relationship between Senna and his frenemy and foil, fellow racer Alain Prost. When Prost is all about playing politics, Senna is all about the racing. They begin as friends then turn into nemeses and finally seem to end up at a healthy "shaking hands and smiling for the crowd." It's a thread throughout the movie, a friend/rival relationship that we can all relate to.


Kapadia depicts Senna as a benevolent Achilles-type character. He travels around the world, but never forgets his roots. To the people of Brazil he is a hero, a glimmer of joy in a tumultuous political and social period. In his career, he always strives to be the best and almost always achieves his goals. But like Achilles, he eventually begins a race that he knows he may not finish (in that particular race, there had already been three accidents and one death due to new F1 vehicle regulations). And like Achilles and his un-dipped heel, Senna dies in a horrific crash with only one injury--a blow to the head, which would have been harmless had it hit six inches higher or lower. The similarities between the Greek legend of the battlefield and the Brazilian god of the racetrack are striking. When Senna gets in the car for the final time, you know he is not going to get out. And when he dies, you feel as though the world has lost a hero.

And this is from someone who knows nothing about racing...

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