UK Certificate: 12
US Certificate: PG-13
Intended audience: Adults
Let me say upfront that I have absolutely no interest in Formula 1 racing, or sport in general for that matter. However director Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary documentary about racing legend Aryton Senna is a fascinating, gripping, thrilling, emotionally devastating powerhouse of a film that deserves to be seen even by the most sport-phobic among us. Coming from me, that is a huge, huge recommendation.
Senna’s rise to fame, his expertise at driving in the rain, his fierce rivalry with French driver Alain Prost, his Christian faith, and ultimately the tragic events that led up to his death in a fatal car crash in 1994 are covered in absolutely riveting fashion. Senna himself is portrayed largely as an idealist dedicated to the art of racing, and some of his most memorable achievements on the track are covered here. Whether he’s catching up from last to first or driving with a gearbox that’s stuck, it is obvious even to the most Formula 1 ignorant (like me) that Senna was a racing genius.
Born into a wealthy and supportive Brazilian family, Senna’s parent’s encouraged him on to success. After breaking into Formula 1 his early races made his name, but he got upset about racing politics on several occasions. As ambition and overconfidence sometimes got the better of him, he tried to learn from his mistakes, but his feud with Prost and outspoken attitude towards the Formula 1 bosses often got him into trouble – even when he had a valid point. Off the racing track the film offers just enough insight into Brazilian poverty to give context to an organisation Senna set up to help impoverished children.
The filmmakers had unprecedented access not only to family home movies but also Formula 1’s private footage of drivers meetings and the like, and a wealth of other unseen behind the scenes material. It’s also a masterclass in editing considering the absence of voiceover, and that the initial cut was in excess of eight hours.
Most fascinatingly, Senna’s faith is constantly referred to, even if it is clearly a troubled faith at times. There are alarmingly prescient moments that foreshadow his death; from the banal (his appearance on a gaudy Brazilian TV show where he is kissed by a girl and wished a “happy 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993” but crucially no years beyond that) to the arguably supernatural (the morning before his death, Senna says in an interview that he read a passage in the Bible that perhaps indicated he was about to die).
Whenever I watch this, I have to confess I get tears in my eyes at the end. Even though I still have no interest in Formula 1, this is a film that would appeal to anyone because it deals with universal human themes like ambition, rivalry, faith and loss. Senna is also a fitting tribute to a racing legend and a Brazilian national hero.