SHORT TAKE: “Senna” (****)

Posted by · 8:56 am · August 10th, 2011

It seems perverse to begin a review of a documentary — one about a well-known, latter-day sports legend, at that — with something as mundanely cautious as a spoiler alert. Until recently, if general knowledge hadn’t already acquainted a viewer with the outcome of a non-fiction feature, or if the laws of real, unheightened life hadn’t made it patently obvious, the filmmakers would usually do the job for us anyway, working backwards from set facts to find the variables we don’t know, or didn’t know we knew.

With a new breed of documentarists getting ever more playfully shape-shifting in they ways they trade information and manipulate point of view — last year’s talking-point docs “Catfish” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” both hinged on an abrupt turn not only in perspective, but in subject — Asif Kapadia’s dazzling biopic “Senna” instead subverts expectations by keeping its storytelling fiercely linear. Viewers unfamiliar with the story of Ayrton Senna, the reckless, beautiful Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver who rose to prominence in the 1980s and ended his career as arguably the greatest in the sport’s history, are offered no pat framing devices and wistful talking heads to say what became of him, beyond the unhappy use of the past tense.

There are, presumably, more such viewers in the US than in the UK, where “Senna” has recently become the highest-grossing documentary of all time; the beauty of Kapadia’s keenly paced and meticulously edited film is that it’s equally affecting as present-tense post-mortem for fans and quasi-mythic history for the uninformed. Appraised through either lens, its narrative is a markedly cinematic, even classical, one: Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey (a film novice drafted in on the strength of his unmatched Senna fandom) have waded through reams of footage and individual recollections to carve out a crisp, resonant three-act structure of ambition, triumph and rivalry that echoes the beats of so many  fabricated sports dramas until real life gets stunningly in the way.

A director of dramatic features previously best known for his striking BAFTA-winner “The Warrior,” Kapadia is a canny enough story-spinner to treat his material here as an extraordinary fiction, milking the primal love-hate chemistry between chippy young Senna and Alain Prost, his older, dourer initial teammate and eventual nemesis, for maximum melodramatic value, with venal, Blofeld-like F1 chief Jean-Marie Balestre lurking splendidly on the sidelines as a too-good-to-be-true-and-yet villain figure. Indeed, he, and we, invest in the eventual climax of this cockfight with such urgency that Senna’s demise is a disorienting intrusion even to the many viewers who know it’s coming.

The film sets the foundations for Senna’s upsettingly abrupt death — a fatal crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the events depicted here with previously unseen, positively gasp-inducing first-person footage — with honest symptoms rather than pompous foreshadowing. There’s little need for post-fact editorializing about Senna’s death wish when the man himself so baldly embraced his mortality in interviews; there’s little need to sound drums ahead of the fateful day when the film has already matter-of-factly shown how close Senna came to a similar fate in previous races. The payoff of Pandey’s elegant, persistently forward-driving screenplay (and yes, it is one) is that we acquire the same mounting acquaintance with, and concern for, the subject that Senna’s own followers did in his day, however condensed.

The filmmakers know, too, that it’s not sufficient to tell us what an extraordinary figure he was, however persuasive on a second-hand level the visual evidence presented of his deification in Brazil. Our admiration is likewise earned via stretches of thrilling, heart-in-mouth race footage, as well as curiously poignant incidental asides — a seemingly fluffy stretch of footage showing Senna awkwardly flirting with an improbably buxom children’s TV host is merely amusing until we begin to wonder just how adequate the man felt in any seat but that of his own vehicle. By turn rousing, inquisitive and heart-crushing, Kapadia’s remarkable moving portrait is documentary cinema of the most economical order: not a shred of film has been wasted on, or added to, a life that, nearly two decades on, remains ever unfinished.

(“Senna” opens in limited US release on Friday. Look out for my interview with director Asif Kapadia later this week.)

→ 15 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

15 responses so far

  • 1 8-10-2011 at 9:42 am

    Daniel N. said...

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one! Glad to hear that you liked it.

  • 2 8-10-2011 at 9:47 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    I’ve heard a lot of spectacular things about this one, but I’m always the most cautious about films that have been given “universal praise”. Spectacular to hear it’s more than simple overheated excitement.

  • 3 8-10-2011 at 11:54 am

    JCS said...

    Favourite film of the year so far, and I’m not a massive F1 fan. The biggest selling-point was that NO ONE in my screening left until after the credits were completely up. That’s saying something…

  • 4 8-10-2011 at 1:26 pm

    Lau said...

    A truly remarkable film. The story is incredibly well put together from the 15000 hours of film Asif and Manish had to sit through – they could have got it so wrong, what with so much footage to choose from, but they did a spectacular job. It makes you smile, laugh, gawp, cry, just everything.
    I’m from the UK and when I went to see this, people were giving it standing ovations at the end, and like JCS , not one person left the cinema until the credits had finished rolling. And when everyone left, you could tell most of them had been crying.
    If you’re an F1 fan, or even just a racing fan in general, I can honestly say this is the probably the best movie you will ever see. You can’t help but be touched by it. If you aren’t an F1 fan, this is still an incredible movie about a remarkable man who was an outsider, and fought blood, sweat and tears to get to the top through so many hardships. Definitely worth a watch!

  • 5 8-11-2011 at 4:26 am

    Glenn said...

    Indeed, “Senna” is a beauty. And if it’s deemed ineligible for Best Documentary (which, well, shouldn’t it under their silly rules of doco’s made up entirely of previously existing footage?) hopefully the editing branch can pull a “Hoop Dreams” and nominate it there.

  • 6 8-11-2011 at 5:19 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, I was going to do a post on that Oscar niggle. My hope is that the fact that much of the interview footage was recorded specifically for the film — even if it’s only audio with no visual attached — should prove a sufficient loophole.

  • 7 8-11-2011 at 5:56 am

    Kevin said...

    This screened at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival (Australia) and I missed it.

    A pal of mine who saw it was quite impressed too. Will keep my eye out!

  • 8 8-11-2011 at 5:59 am

    Kob said...

    Thought i was fantastic when I saw it at the Barbican earlier in the year. I heard that there was a longer, more extensive cut of the film and hope that at least some of the footage they left out makes it onto the DVD/Blu Ray

  • 9 8-11-2011 at 6:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Indeed, Kapadia tells me his initial cut was seven hours. There’ll be more on that subject in my interview with him — coming either tomorrow or on the weekend.

  • 10 8-11-2011 at 5:16 pm

    Glenn said...

    Well apparently Kapadia told a mate of mine that it *is* eligible, but I refuse to believe it until the Academy says so.

  • 11 8-11-2011 at 10:08 pm

    Andrej said...

    In a year I’ve had troubles finding a favorite film for 2011 (not that all I’ve seen so far is bad, but they’re not as great as what I had seen by this time last year), Senna comes out of nowhere, catches me unguarded with my lack of knowledge or interest in F1, and swiftly earns the #1 position.

    I’m literally speechless.

  • 12 8-12-2011 at 1:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Glad to hear it. I should add that Formula 1 usually bores me rigid.

  • 13 8-12-2011 at 5:08 am

    Fé said...

    Did you exist last year?! Formula one was incredible last season, and now Vettel has stopped winning, it’s back to it’s best. Best sport on earth. Anyway, I hope Senna is the first step in an F1 revolution in the US. I didn’t expect to take anywhere near as well in the US as it has, and next year with the GP at Austin, I hope people will get into the sport and we can see some *proper* American racers emerge – the gurney-hill sort. They were icons and I do miss having some Americans on the grid. And I hope the American love it just as much much as every other country on earth does!

  • 14 8-18-2011 at 10:47 am

    Speaking English said...

    Wow, Ebert gave this film 2 1/2 stars. Very interesting.