Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Senna: A Search for God on the Raceway

Directed By: Asif Kapadia
Written By: Manish Pandey
Featuring: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost
Editors: Chris King, Gregers Sall, Original Music: Antonio Pinto
Rated: PG-13 for language and a few, brief, shocking images.

            I’m a baseball fan (particularly a Minnesota Twins fan). When asked by others, what exactly I love about baseball though, I’m often at a loss for words. How does one explain either the enjoyment of watching a sport, or even more particularly playing a sport? You just have to do it to really understand, but even then, the subjectivity is impossible to correlate.

            For Ayrton Senna, the most famous Formula One racer of all time (we’ll leave the debate of whether it can be considered a sport for another time), it is impossible to truly understand what motivated him as he raced around sharp corners with a recklessness never seen by any other driver. As he explains after one race, “I felt closer to God at that moment than any other in my life.” Can the secret to the love of sports, or speed in this manner, be a mystical connection of some sort? An ecstasy that is otherwise impossible to find?  That’s part of the mystery surrounding Mr. Senna, who is the profile of a new documentary entitled Senna, exploring the life and times of the famous driver.

            Not exactly being a fan of neither NASCAR nor the easily more interesting Formula One (there are actual corners to race around instead of a flat circle), I had never even heard of Mr. Senna, which director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey mythologize in a legend. Using only archival footage (the talking heads are relegated only to voiceover narration), Mr. Kapadia starts with Senna’s origins as a go cart racer in Brazil and his eventual move to Formula One, as he took the sport by storm in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

            As we see throughout the footage, Senna is charismatic but extremely reserved as well, where he is unable to explain what truly drives his dangerous but daring choices on the course. Some of the best moments come from simply watching the driving through the point of view cameras attached to the cars during the races. It’s inherently cinematic and a great way to really give us a feeling of what makes Formula One such a fascinating sport, as it allows us to in a way feel the sport.

            Mr. Kapadia also brings in stories of Mr. Senna as a sex symbol (it really helps that he looks more like a movie star than a sports star), a national icon for Brazil, and a man with a bitter rivalry. The best parts of the narrative focus on his battles with mentor turned challenger Alain Prost, who battle over the years to remain the champion of the Grand Prix. Where Mr. Senna is a risk taker who drives by his emotions and feelings, Mr. Prost is calculated and precise in his decisions throughout, making their battles both on the course and their egos off the course a fascinating watch.

            However, you get the sense that either Mr. Senna was too reserved, or simply Mr. Kapadia and Mr. Pandey too afraid to explore the man, that Senna is a little too slight for a feature documentary. It’s much too easy to simply say Mr. Senna was the greatest driver of all time and explore why, than to ask who he really was off the course. The film seems way to comfortable with making him a religious figure, which would be fine if the film explored some of the more cultural impact, especially the political and economic instability of Brazil during his time. By the end, it feels like a nice introduction to a legendary figure, but for those not already invested in the subject, you don’t walk away feeling you should try and find more.

            Perhaps, there is not much more out there. Mr. Senna used the road to search for God, as the documentary suggests, and the end of his career only left more questions than answers. Life in the fast lane is not for everyone, but for Mr. Senna, it was the only lane.

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