SENNA. Documentary film. Starring Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Frank Williams.Directed by Asif Kapadia. 106 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).

This documentary has been acclaimed by critics (who welcomed its not having a talking head narrator as well as its editing of a vast amount of race footage and commentaries) and by fans of Formula 1.  It is clearly a labour of love for British director, Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, The Return, Far North) who assembled thousands of feet of film and sifted through them to offer a documentary portrait of Brazilian three time world champion, Ayrton Senna.

Enthusiasts for the film have offered the disclaimer that Senna is not just for petrol heads or more respectable followers for Formula 1.  That may be.  But, many people also have an aversion to this sport, its noise, its big business and cigarette company sponsorship (much in evidence here), the contribution of national and local governments, its politics and rivalries and its dangers.  All of these are very evident in Senna.  They make it just that bit more difficult for some audiences to enjoy the film (as was the case with this reviewer).  That reservation being offered for the wary, we can ask what the film does do.

First of all, it features a great deal of material with Senna himself.  Born in 1960 in Sao Paolo to a comfortable family, a teenage competitor in Karting competition, and then introduced into Formula 1 in his early twenties, he was dead at the age of 34 in a racing crash that was seen the world over on television.  He comes across as a genial personality but also a fairly driven (no pun intended) competitor.  He had natural driving skills and concentration (and we are shown some footage from his on-car camera during races), and appreciated being a world champion.  But he also comes across as sometimes self-deprecating, truly loyal to Brazil, and contributing to the well being of his compatriots in donations and a foundation.  He also frequently uses God language in his explanations of what makes him tick. And his English, accent and vocabulary,  is very impressive.

If there is a villain in this drama to Senna’s hero, it is his French partner and rival, Alain Prost, who is painted as an antagonistic grouch, but who still is a member of the Senna Trust Board.  There are references to Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher and there are views of tragic accidents and some deaths.  Senna is shown as being concerned about safety, arguing against the president of the sport’s governing body for better conditions on the track.  After his death, his doctor friend Sid Watkins was appointed to improve health and safety standards in the sport and there has not been a death since.

This means that audiences will take out of the film what interests them.  Some will look at the racing footage.  Others will be impressed with the portrait of Senna himself.  Others will be intrigued by the competitiveness and the sport politics.  Senna does provide enough material for all these interests.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Out 11th August 2011.


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