“Senna” – A Portrait of an Immensely Talented Man

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Winning a Formula One race, the highest level of professional racing, depends upon various factors, ranging from the drivers’ skills to car’s quality to political alliances. If you don’t know anything about F1 race (like me), the first few minutes of Asif Kapadia’s gripping documentary “Senna” (2010) confirms the fact that there is no democracy in this sport. The only rare democratizing force comes from God. When he opens the skies raw talent is brought out of racers. The documentary chronicles one of this speculative sports’ precocious legend, ‘Ayrton Senna.’ He dominated the sport, winning three world championships, and died on the track, in 1994 at age 34.

‘Senna’ could be watched, even if you have never played a racing game in your computer. Senna’s life contains all the elements of a great story: inspiration, competition, victory, defeat, betrayal, and the inevitable tragedy. The documentary starts by tracking Senna’s early life, when raced go-carts as a youth, in Europe as early as 1978. Recalling those moments, he lamentably states: “It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics, no money involved either. It was real racing.” Senna’s rise into the F1 race circuit is also said to have marked the arrival of cameras in the circuit, where its lenses loomed over the pits, circuits, racers’ meeting and inside the race cars themselves. These outstanding racing footage are finely juxtaposed to mark his key moments of the meteoric rise.

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In 1984, Senna startlingly finished second in the Monaco race, and then later, in 1988, he won the Japanese Grand Prix, coming back from 16th position. The victory in Japan marked the first of his three world championships. One of his supporters explains, “He would take the car beyond its designed capabilities”, while the footage makes us witness his fearless talent, where he slips through some of the narrowest openings to overtake other cars. The mid 80’s was also the period of Senna’s great rivalry with a French driver, Alain Prost. They both were first friendly and drove for McLaren team. However, the lack of trust – the inherent part of this sport – divided them both and turned them into bitter enemies.

In 1989, a controversial incident inside the Japanese racing circuit costs Senna the world championship (Alain Prost won the championship) and six months suspension. It was also the time, where the French head of Formula 1 racing, Mr. Jean-Marie Balestre, favored Alain Prost and had some sort of vendetta against Senna. The enmity between Prost and Senna continued into the early 90’s, as both of them jumped from team to team. We also get to see who Senna was; what were his ideologies; and what brought him joy? Senna was born to wealthy Brazilian parents. His family stood behind him even when he was a slender Go-cart racer. We see him with his family in the yacht, frolicking with beautiful blonde companionships and expressing great love for country and God. However, Kapadia’s footages mostly try to stay from Senna’s private life.

Senna and Prost

Senna and Prost

Hauntingly, days before his inevitable death, we also see him witnessing the death of racer Ratzenberger, in a practice match. It literally shakes him, as we see him shed some tears. Director Kapadia’s treatment of Senna’s sudden death is handled in a sensitive and elegiac manner. People gather in the streets, shedding tears for Brazil’s most revered man. The characters introduced throughout the documentary are seen at the funeral, and their grim faces cross-cuts with early happier times. Alain Prost – Senna’s racing nemesis could be seen serving as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral.

Kapadia and his editors Chris King and Gregers Sall must have gone through mountains of video footage to construct this insinuating portrait of “Senna.” This sports documentary would inspire us to exhibit genuine empathy for all those true racers. To remain unmoved in the end is just impossible.

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