Monday 28 April 2014

Film Review: Senna

"Racing, competing, is in my blood. It's part of me, it's part of my life; I've been doing it all my life. And it stands up before anything else"

In 2011, documentary film-maker Asif Kapadia released a biographic film of iconic Formula One driver Ayrton Senna's career, following his humble beginnings growing up in Sao Paulo to attaining near-mythical status and global notoriety upon his tragic death during the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994.

To honour the 20th anniversary of Senna's passing, I re-watched Kapadia's highly-acclaimed film once more. This is my review.

May 1st 1994 was a dark day in the history of motor-racing. Unforgettable to many across the world.

20 years ago this week, one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, Ayrton Senna, was tragically killed during the San Marino Grand Prix - a three-time Formula One World Champion, Senna was a maverick behind the wheel and an idol to millions of fans across the world. To this day, Senna remains an icon of motor-racing, and is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, racing driver that ever lived.

Immensely influential and skilled, Senna remains the last driver to have been killed during a Formula One Grand Prix - for 20 years, death has eluded the brave drivers who compete in a sport where their ever-present mortality was an all too apparent part of everyday life.

The statistics speak for themselves; 162 races, 41 wins, 80 podium finishes, 65 pole positions and 3 World Championships. But what these numbers don't capture, is the mythological aura that surrounds the legend of Ayrton Senna - the complexity of man who captivated racing fans across the world for a decade. It is this sense of mysticism that Asif Kapadia's stunning documentary captures so wonderfully.

The film spans 10 years, from Senna's arrival in Formula One in 1984 to his sudden death in 1994. It starts out by recounting his early years with mid-field teams such as Toleman and Lotus - eye-catching from the start, the film strives to show Senna's dynamism behind the wheel at such a young age, as well as his upbringing in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

After this, the film moves onto the bulk of Senna's career as he moves to McLaren. Much like Clark and Lotus, Schumacher and Ferrari, Senna and McLaren were intertwined with one another and to many Formula One fans, inseparable. The film captures this wonderfully, with his relationship with Ron Dennis playing a big role, and of course his rivalry with Alain Prost.

It's the film's final third however that elevates it to the next level; everything about how the film captures that fateful weekend in Italy is near enough perfect. It's a haunting and emotional piece of cinema, one that is enough to give you chills.

What I feel is the film's strongest suit however, is how it accurately captures the inner conflict and complexity to the man. Ayrton Senna was by no means an angel, with his uncompromising will to win, and belief in divine right guiding his actions both on and off the track. It ultimately makes him a fatally flawed man, despite his immense natural skill.

The film succeeds in portraying Senna as a layered and three-dimensional human being, not one that is flat or uninteresting. On the one hand, Senna was uncompromising and harsh. He would stop at nothing to win; his rivalry with Prost showed this on numerous occasions, the most iconic one which being the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. Kapadia captures these flagpole moments of Senna's career impeccably.

On the other hand, Senna was deeply religious and caring. He is cherished in Brazil as helping thousands of underprivileged children through his tireless charity work. Finding the balance and honing in on the man's complex character is no mean feat; Kapadia's ability to forge a cohesive narrative rich in detail from Senna's career must be commended on top of everything else.

For Formula One fans, this film is the perfect recount of the sport's most recognisable figure. The footage, the interviews and the narration all work together to capture the man, whether it is on the track or back home in Brazil. The wonderful footage (carefully chosen and pieced together by some sublime direction and editing) is drawn from the F1 archives, some of which is eye-popping stuff.

The sound editing in this film (not something I ever pick up on with other films) is also really stand-out. The narration (provided by people like Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Senna's sister Viviane and Professor Sid Watkins, is insightful also.

For everyone else, this is a riveting biopic for which an interest in motorsport is not mandatory. You don't have to know your Lewis Hamilton's from your Denny Hulme's to draw everything you need from this film.

Are there some drawbacks to Senna? Some may argue that his relationship with Prost is depicted in an overly simplistic or one-sided manner. This is true, but also excusable given the films focus on Senna, rather than the rivalry itself.

For me, the film represents something special. I never will get to witness Senna's career first-hand on TV or live, having been only one-year-old when he passed. That he died so young (he would have been 54 this year), and that I was never old enough to watch his races on TV is a real shame. Absorbing Kapadia's Senna is the closet I'll ever get. And I'm glad that he got it right.

I give Senna: 10/10

Utterly captivating and chilling from start to finish, Senna is one of the the greatest motorsport films, and biopics, ever made. It's an iconic story wonderfully told, and easily approachable for non-fans of Formula 1. A fantastic tale of a simply mesmerising icon of world sport. Unmissable.


  1. Great review! I'll have to check this one out now :)

    1. Absolutely do, it's a great biopic :) Thanks for commenting!

  2. Good review. It's a very good documentary that shows you don't have to be a car-racing aficionado to appreciate all of the time and effort somebody puts into one story, and one subject.

    1. You're right; very in-depth and focused study of a complex character. Thanks for commenting Dan :)



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