Director: Asif Kapadia
It's a measure of how good a sports themed movie is when it can hold the interest of someone who has absolutely no interest in the sport itself. Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna, about the late Forumla One driver Ayrton Senna, is one of those films. Making use of home videos, interview footage, and sports cast footage, Senna is a film that will speak to racing fans and non-racing fans alike.
With the footage he's assembled, Kapadia's portrait of Ayrton Senna basically breaks down into three parts. One deals with his privileged life, growing up as the son of a wealthy factory owner who could fund his racing dreams and then becoming wealthy and famous in his own right. Despite a life full of advantages, the film makes a point of underscoring that he got to where he was through hard work and dedication, putting everything into the sport, and emphasizing his efforts to give back, particularly in his native Brazil, once he became famous. His impact on Brazilian culture comes across in the footage from his funeral, which resembles the sort of send-off usually reserved for heads of state (the Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning to mark the event).
The second part, and the part that takes up the lion's share of the narrative, is Senna's friendship/rivalry with Alain Prost. The two were teammates starting in 1988, when Prost was on top and Senna was quickly catching up to him. The competition between the two, exacerbated by behind the scenes racing politics, eventually (or, at least, the film would have you believe) led to a pure and abiding hatred between the two, though the film's end at least suggests that their relationship was much more complicated than that. This part of the film is easily the most engrossing, combining the excitement of sport with psychological and political maneuvering that illuminates both the good and the bad aspects of sport in general, but racing in particular.
The third, and perhaps most crucial, part of the film's portrait has to do with Senna's spirituality. Devoutly Catholic, the film foregrounds his religious beliefs in many scenes, making the argument that part of the reason he was such a good driver is because he had faith in a greater plan. His faith in such a plan extended to the day of his last race, when he opened his Bible at random and read a passage stating that he "would receive the greatest gift of all, which was God himself."
The portrait that Kapadia paints of Senna is one of a beloved man who nevertheless managed to remain humble. As a film, it does a good job of showing Senna's technical proficiency as a driver while also showing some of the politics involved in racing that may have held him back or, at least, curtailed his rapid rise to the top. If the film has a failing, it's that it presents things in a little too lopsided a fashion. For example, it spends a lot of time building up Prost as an irredeemable villain and enemy to Senna, which seems like an unlikely reflection of reality given that he was one of the pallbearers at Senna's funeral. That being said, Senna is an entertaining, often fascinating documentary.