There’s some things you just don’t forget. I remember my Dad telling me at the age of four to watch the television because something really important was happening. That event was the falling of the Berlin Wall. Ironically I don’t remember anything about the footage, but I do remember my Dad telling me to watch it.
I also remember Ireland beating Romania on penalties in the 1990 World Cup Finals to reach the quarter final of the competition for the first time in their history. Afterwards we went out for a drive around Limerick, where I lived at the time. People were beeping horns, cheering and generally having a great time.
Another thing I’ll never forget is the weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. On the Saturday during qualifying a Formula One driver called Roland Ratzenberger died. The next day, during the race three times world champion Ayrton Senna died. I remember the event because it was the first time someone I’d watch compete and knew about had died.
Senna tells the story of the Brazilian driver, from the beginning of his career in 1984 up until his untimely death in 1994.
It makes the slightly unusual choice of containing no narrator or talking heads. Instead, all the footage and audio is taken from the time of the events taking place. This proves to be a very wise and important decision, allowing the film to move from what could have been a good television movie to a great cinematic documentary.
It allows the commentary and opinions on Senna to avoid the sentimentality that may otherwise accompany them if they were given today. In addition, it allows the events to play out in a strange kind of sped up real-time. As we see the rise of this great driver from plucky underdog to ruthless champion.
The main narrative of the movie concerns his relationship to the other great driver of his generation, Frenchman Alain Prost.
Prost, nicknamed “The Professor” is depicted as a cool, calculating driver, who would know exactly how to set up his car to get the most from the race.
Senna, on the other hand, is portrayed as a passionate, instinctive driver who believed in the competitive element of the sport, and took the greatest joy from passing other drivers. We’re also given an insight into his strong faith in God, which Prost believed allowed Senna to take more risks than any other driving; as though the Brazilian believed God would somehow protect him from harm.
Being in the best team in Formula One at the time, McLaren, Prost held the upper hand until 1988, when Senna became his new teammate. With the same car, racing for the same team, it finally gave Senna the chance to show the world of Formula One what he was really made of.
As we see this rivalry unfold in its entirety we get a real insight into the values, passions and skills of these two great competitors. Even without the film’s tragic end, the twists and turns in the Prost/Senna saga make for a brilliantly cinematic tale.
The climax to the film makes for an almost unwatchable experience: We realise every decision, event and reaction will only lead to one inevitable conclusion. In particular seeing the footage of Senna’s reaction to fellow competitor Ratzenberger’s death is one of the most affecting things I’ve ever seen in the cinema.
Senna is a film that will obviously appeal primarily to Formula One fans. However, it would be a real pity if these were the only people that saw it. In constructing a film that unfolds so naturally, its director Asif Kapadia, has created a remarkable tribute to one of sport’s great competitors and personalities.