Review: Senna, 2011, dir. Asif Kapadia

As documentaries go, Senna may be best characterized as unabashedly partisan. From the moment the film begins, director Asif Kapadia clearly wants us to come to root for Ayrton Senna, the eponymous and deceased Brazilian Formula One racer. Kapadia’s concerned little and less with objectivity. He’s an admirer, and largely his film rides on the hope that his admiration shines through enough to convince us of his perspective. In this regard, Senna is successful to an extent; it’s easy to see how and why anyone might come to count themselves as a fan of the film’s subject. But for all of Kapadia’s tactics of persuasion, his documentary lacks all of the elements necessary to connect his audiences to Senna’s story and fully express why any of this should really matter to us.

It should be noted quickly that Senna‘s thoroughly researched and painstakingly made. In this area, one can take very little away from Kapadia, who has done an exhaustive history of the beloved racer’s life and accomplishments on the racetrack and created an effectively illuminating textbook about the recent history and the political mores of Formula One racing. Anybody who wants to know more about the sport should turn to this film straight away; considering the film’s relative brevity in light of the span of time it covers, it’s packed with information. Viewed through that lens, Senna works. Speaking to the eponymous driver’s achievements, no stone is left unturned; anyone walking away from the film will have a strong working knowledge of global single-seater racing.

What they won’t know much about is Senna himself, and that is where the film stumbles. On the surface, it’s not hard to feel a sense of elation seeing this man succeed as he does in race after race, despite both the obstacles put in his path by FISA and the machinations of rival racer Alain Prost. Everyone likes an underdog, after all, and for a large chunk of the film Senna’s just the little guy trying to win against the whims of the established ruling body of the game. For as long as the film treats Senna as the David to Prost’s and FISA head Jean-Marie Balestre’s two-headed Goliath, there’s something with which for us to sustain a meaningful, if still loose, connection. Once Senna becomes, well, Senna, and once his star takes off, it’s anchors aweigh; the film moves, but we lose our tether to it, and as a result the experience becomes educational rather than moving.

Rooting for someone you know next to nothing about is challenging. It’s not that Senna views Ayrton as a cipher; we’re given little pieces of his life as a person in conjunction with the much vaster history of his Formula One career. We meet his family and some of his friends, we learn that Ayrton comes from a well-off family, and we learn that he has an intense passion for racing and a deep-rooted sense of spirituality. We never really learn the “why” of either, though, and so Ayrton remains vaguely defined as a religious man who feels he must drive because he must drive. That’s not particularly compelling, and while it doesn’t detract from Senna’s contributions to the world it certainly makes Kapadia’s narrative something of a slog.

The experience is frustrating. Kapadia primarily focuses on covering the man’s life and times as a racer and examining his influence on that particular cultural sphere. Time spent with admirers feels cursory, as though the director knew he had to include it but didn’t feel particularly motivated to go any further into the impact Senna’s amazing story had on the rest of the world, specifically his home country. When the world weeps over his tragic death, the effect is perfunctory; our bond to him as a character and a person isn’t particularly strong, and we’ve only been given the faintest idea of how he affected the lives of his fellow Brazilians. This is puzzling to me since the film clearly reveals that Senna meant something huge to people across the world– and in many cases it’s easy to hazard a guess as to what his success symbolized to many– but Kapadia almost entirely sidesteps that conversation to move on to the next big race.

Ultimately the issue facing Senna is a matter of having too much of one element and too little of another. Could the film have succeeded by only portraying his attainment of trophies and accolades? Would it have worked if Kapadia had downplayed the material and examined in greater depth what Senna meant to his fans and to his loved ones? Maybe the only thing that matters is that we never fully get to know Ayrton Senna beyond his victories and his battles with Formula One politicking. Speaking strictly to matters of craft, Senna is well enough made, but it fails to adequately emotionally invest in its subject, creating distance instead of proximity to Ayrton and preventing the film’s inspirational qualities from having their full effect. 

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9 thoughts on “Review: Senna, 2011, dir. Asif Kapadia

  1. “What they won’t know much about is Senna himself, and that is where the film stumbles.” – You just cracked someones head open with a massive nail!

    Wanted to like this more but considering this is sold to us as “Senna” I walked out knowing almost nothing about the guy. It’s probably easy to get caught up in the whys and hows when making a doc about someone’s death, but I feel this was used as a vehicle for outlining F1 politics of the era over actually celebrating one of the driving greats.

    Side note: the poor quality TV footage doesn’t half have a brilliant “those were the days” effect on you.

    • I think we’re of the same mind here. I didn’t for a second feel like Senna really told us anything about Senna, the man, as much as it told us about Senna, the driver, and I so desperately wanted to understand why he needed to compete in F1. I never got that. Credit where credit’s due, I do have a pretty firm grasp of his history on the track, but beyond that, I’ve got nothing.

  2. Haven’t seen this yet despite all the rave. I remember watching Senna face off against Alain Prost every Sunday afternoon, Senna certainly was the best of the best during his time.

  3. Man, it seems like the movies you and I see are shockingly in tandem…I just don’t have the time to review them all:P This was an amazing documentary both in story and structure although I had no problem with the proximity you mentioned. But otherwise, fine job again my friend!!

    • How are we that cinematically in sync? Maybe we’re just noticing new titles going up on Instant at the same time.

      Yeah, I just never felt all that connected to Senna as presented by Kapadia, which made it hard to really get into the story.

  4. We have a different opinions on this film (I loved it, and I thought it was an extraordinarily tense experience – and one of the only films that brought me to tears last year) but you argue your points very well.

    I have updated my url (it is now http://thefilmemporium.blogspot.com), and I noticed that your link in yout Blogroll still links to my old site (now a blank page, unfortunately). Is it possible for you to change it? Cheers mate. Keep up the great work.

    • Link update. Thanks for pointing that out Andy, I need to be more vigilant about maintaining my blogroll– this isn’t the first time I’ve kept an old outdated link in there!

      I just wish I’d understood Ayerton more by the end. I think it’s well enough made, but for me the highs would have been elevated that much more if I had any idea why Senna was so driven to compete and succeed.

  5. I recently put up a review of “Senna” myself, and I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with your take. I feel as if we were presented with both sides of the driver; it’s almost natural for someone who races professionally to be the other side of the coin emotionally in his personal life, I didn’t feel like the distance at which Senna the person was kept was a drawback, more just the way it was? I could be off, there. And as for your take on “why” he needed to drive, and how that could have been better illuminated, I’m not sure it could. Isn’t it self evident for most phenomenally gifted athletes that they will have a competition in them with regards to their sport? He was miraculous at driving, and as such a devout man, I think it could be said he felt he was honoring God through his athletic pursuit, not unlike Eric Liddel in “Chariots of Fire” or even the fictional Salieri in “Amadeus”.

    Either way, solid review – I just found your blog this afternoon and it will be one I follow!

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