2010 Running time: 106 Certificate: 12 Rating: 4

Synopsis

The life of mercurial Brazilian motor racing champion Ayrton Senna is tracked in this high-revving documentary. From his arrival in Formula One in the mid 1980s, the film details his struggles both on the track against his rival, French World Champion Alain Prost, and off it, against the internal politics of the sport. Tragically he is struck down in his prime at Imola on the blackest weekend in the history of the sport, watched live on television by 300 million people.

Director

  • Asif Kapadia

Cast

  • Documentary

Review

When a true story like that of the life - and death - of Ayrton Senna, iconic three-time Formula 1 World Champion - comes along you wonder why a Hollywood scriptwriter didn't snap it up as a biopic years ago.

With friendship, rivalry and a handsome, national hero cut down in the prime of life, this has all the trappings of a blockbuster hit.

Lucky for us that no one did however, since Asif Kapadia's elegant documentary, made up of skilfully selected real footage, home videos and commentary from friends and sports journalists, is far more moving than a fictional account could ever have been.

At its heart is Senna, a cheeky, impetuous but incredibly driven young man whose dream of becoming a world-class racer is realised at the tender age of 23 when he wins his first Grand Prix in Portugal.

Senna exudes youthful hopefulness, an infectious optimism that soon has the whole of an impoverished and politically agitated Brazilian people at his feet. The audience, too, can't help but be charmed by his good looks, talent and passion for his sport and country.

Like all good dramas, there must be an obstacle to Senna's success, and the brilliance here is that we are never sure whether it is Alain Prost, fellow star McLaren driver and, eventually, Senna's bitter rival, or whether it is Senna himself.

The two run into each on numerous occasions, most notably on the Suzuka circuit in the Japanese Grand Prix, from which Senna is then disqualified, and later Prost claims that he was so disgusted with his team-mate that he "wanted to punch him in the face".

But is Prost to blame for the controversial decisions on the part of the FIA? Or is Senna simply too reckless? Senna's spirituality is also under the microscope here; he obsessively thanks a higher power for his success, and speaks of a transcendental state on the circuit "well beyond my conscious understanding".

It's the kind of delirious faith we saw in Man on Wire. When he dies turning into a fairly innocuous corner in San Marino, the question as to whether the car had a defect or whether Senna's unstoppable desire for perfection and skewed sense of protection would always have led him here remains hanging.

The technical side of racing is cleverly kept to a minimum allowing car fanatics and regular cinema-goers alike to revel in the visceral close-ups, without the kind of dull commentary that would have had non-petrolheads nodding off in an instant.

Kapadia has also shunned the usual talking heads of most docs, instead using voiceovers from behind the footage, keeping the focus on Senna and maintaining a fast-paced momentum that replicates that of the track.

The film's real achievement though is how it manages to delicately balance a sense of joy and fatefulness as we struggle against its inevitable conclusion. A hauntingly beautiful piece of cinema, this is an action film, sports documentary and tragedy all in one.

Oh, and, for the record, it does make Senna look like the best motor-racing champion of all time. Schumacher fans, look away.

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