Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Flick of The Day: Senna

The documentary film has long been a difficult cinemagoer. A trip to the cinema is by definition a wish to be entertained not lectured. However in recent years, thanks to a gaggle of truly superb documentaries such as American: The Bill Hicks Story, Touching the Void and Anvil, a documentary is now a seriously entertaining and compelling proposition. Today's flick of the day is a recent arrival in cinemas that delivers on all counts, Senna.
Told by the man himself in his own words, Senna is the life story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver who came from Brazil and conquered the world of Motorsport, winning 3 world titles before his life was tragically cut short in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The film begins as Senna moves to Europe for the first time in 1978 as Go-Kart champion in search of a bigger stage. Before long he is in the highest form of the sport, Formula 1, joining the struggling Toleman team in 1984. It quickly becomes apparent that Ayrton is a special talent, in an early race at Monaco he guides his car to second place in the rain and is hot on the heels of the leader and soon to be nemesis Alain Prost when the race is stopped at Prost's behest because of the rain. 
The relationship between the two is central to the film. Initially grudgingly respectful, this rapidly spirals into enmity when the two becomes team mates for Mclaren in 1988. At 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, Prost drives Senna off the circuit knowing it will guarantee him a World title before Senna returns the favour at the same Grand Prix in 1990. Their duelling and bitter rivalry drives the film forward but in truth Prost is not the villain of the piece. This falls to Jean-Marie Balestre, the man in charge of Formula 1 and who at various points seems to favour his countryman Prost much to the irritation of Senna. The level of political chicanery and outright corruption is shocking at times. 
However most shocking of course is the danger that was involved in the sport at this time. With cars going faster and faster on circuits not built for it and safety regulations that are laughably lax, tragedy was inevitable. The film builds to its climax in this vain with the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994. A cursed weekend, it began with a horrid crash for driver Rubens Barrichello from which he emerges unscathed, before Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger is killed on Saturday. We see Ayrton's reaction to all of this, obviously unsettled he decides to race on Sunday wearing an Austrian flag under his suit in honour of Ratzenberger. As Senna entered the high-speed Tamburello corner on lap 6, the car left the track at high speed, hitting the concrete retaining wall. He was just 34 when he died.
The true strength of the movie is the wealth of footage they make use of, enabling Senna to tell his own story. Almost everything seems to have been documented from drivers briefings prior to races to behind the scenes discussions and shocking footage of the aftermath of crashes. The accident suffered by driver Martin Donnelly is particularly difficult to watch. Not only is everything documented, the various camera men took great care to shoot with an eye for cinematography and it gives even the smallest of a scenes a cinematic feeling. Ultimately, this is not the story of why Senna was a great racing driver but why he was a great man, it is a film that is watchable even by somebody with no interest in the sport.
It is a profoundly moving story all the same. Having battled against the blatant cheating of his main rival and the inane bureaucracy of his sport, to be cut down in his prime by a car that was fatally flawed is a bad end. By the time this occurs, you feel you have the measure of the man and how he lived his life. Director Asif Kapadia has created a compelling and ultimately tragic documentary. You really must see it.

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