“Brazilian people need food, health, education and joy… and now that joy is gone.”
As the title might suggest, Senna is an unabashed love letter to Brazilian F1 racing legend Ayrton Senna. More than a documentary, it is a painstaking reconstruction of Ayrton’s life, but one which favours an artistic interpretation over such trifling things as sporting history.
Drawing on footage from the vast array of camera’s which seem to have dogged his every move and capture his every facial expression, we are able glimpse the man in the most intimate of moments. Director Asif Kapadia treats the incredible footage as if it were a reel of film he has been asked to edit into a piece of epic drama, and makes use of music, camera work and pacing to heighten the already intense emotional events. What emerges is a fascinating narrative arch, manipulated and exaggerated to be sure, but still crafted from the real life tensions which dominated the sport and his personal life.
In this drama, it is of course Senna who takes the role of the young hero; a naive yet fiercely competitive upstart, graced with a gift from god for racing at death defying speeds, and charming the glamorous women all around him. He is a man convinced that his destiny is to be champion and unrivaled superstar of racing but, as is often the hero’s lot, not everything goes to plan.
Standing in his way at every turn is the old-guard villain, a role naturally played by the suave Frenchmen Alain Prost; a racing dinosaur who clings onto his dominance of the sport by whatever means necessary. Prost is not interested in building legends or entertaining the masses – just getting the job done.
Before the hero can realise his destiny he must face his own demons, negotiate the machinations of the sport which fears him, and survive the treachery of his team mate-come-rival. This web of intrigue and angst slowly closes in around the boyish Brazilian until it eventually threatens to destroy him.
Clearly by sculpting the events into a legend there is going to be a compromise as far as reality is concerned. F1 fanatics and Alain Prost fans will no doubt rail at the blatant bias and gaps in truth, and perhaps rightly so, but those of us who couldn’t give a fig about F1 history, the film is able to take us on an astonishing journey. And though Kapadia is clearly playing loosely with the facts, it is obvious from the first hand footage that many of the pieces already fit this grand narrative.
Beyond the the sport itself there are some fascinating glimpses into the glamorous world which Senna inhabited, especially when placed against the back drop of the dire poverty and cultural depression which crippled his homeland at the time. Coming from a country which had seen most of its successful stars up sticks and deny their heritage for fear of being looked down upon, Senna chose to wear his country’s flag with pride and became an idol of a fallen nation. Clips of impoverished Brazilians see them pouring out their collective sense of desperation and even shame: “He is the only thing good in Brazil isn’t he?”
It is difficult to imagine the weight of expectation heaped on Ayrton’s shoulders, and his race on home soil builds to a moment of pure glory and adulation after he is able to show them exactly what his talent can do.
Unfortunately the hero narrative is eventually taken a step too far when Senna is cast in a superstitious religious aura. Not content with detailing his own devout Catholic beliefs (though he always has a keen eye for the ladies) and his own delusions of immortality, the film heavily buys into Senna’s own belief that something divine was ultimately guiding his victories, and even suggests that it has some role in bringing salvation to his homeland.
It may be inspiring to some that God’s answer to crippling systemic poverty is to give hope in the form of a rich boy in an F1 car but surely this is the wrong kind of hope to be giving these poor souls?
But despite pushing the heroic myth as far as it can go Senna still manages to maintain its emotional build towards the inevitable and still shocking conclusion. The final events are shown in disturbingly graphic detail and can’t fail to move, especially when preceded by the intimate and unsettling footage of Senna watching on as a rival competitor dies on the track not long before he must go out and race.
Clearly this is not a film about F1, nor is it a documentary in the traditional sense. History and insights into the sport are condensed into short bursts of action used only to heighten the narrative surrounding Senna, while the warts and all reality of Senna’s career is largely left untouched. But those interested in a stylish and powerfully crafted piece of mythology will be gripped from beginning to end. Relying purely on archive footage is a stroke of directorial genius and creates a far more immersive story than a dramatised version ever will.