To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.
Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.
Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.
The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.
But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.
What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.
So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.
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WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.