- the cinematic musings of a self-certified geek


Senna - Dir. Asif Kapadia, 106mins, UK/FRA/USA, 2011

Black Swan

Copyright MainstreamMatt/Mainstream 2005-2011

Contextualising this review from a personal stand-point is very important in conveying the brilliance that is Asif Kapadia’s portrait of a life cut short by tragedy, mainly because it is imperative that you know this is a documentary movie that transcends genre or a predilection for a sport that is 90% tedium, and at best only intermittently exciting.


From a very young age, Aryton Senna had permeated the consciousness of a child more enamoured with a leather football than fast cars and talk of horsepower. His irrepressible persona, coupled with the flashes of excitement garnered from watching over a slightly more interested fathers shoulder, meant that his was the one car I’d rooted for.


This superbly constructed eulogy takes you from the ramshackle circuits of his European carting debut, right up to that fateful 6th lap of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1992. From start to finish, it grips and never let’s go, in a way that no Hollywood narrative could ever come close to.


Using only archive footage, the majority of which hasn’t been seen before,  the FIA  having granted unprecedented access to the filmmakers, means that the brilliance of this documentary is in the fact that it doesn’t need to rely on talking head interviews to sustain the narrative; there is so much multiple camera, behind the scenes material  that it’s almost as if Kapadia has had a full crew on set rather than just using his undoubted talents to assemble the 1” tapes and reels of film to tell Senna’s story.


And what a story it is; more political intrigue – Senna was at odds with the French led FIA and the sequences which feature the pre-race driver meetings are electric, as the Brazilian goes head to head over safety and race penalties – more drama – the rivalry with Championship nemesis Alain Prost, here painted as the pantomime bad guy that you all remember, but it is never in question that it is a sporting rivalry, not a personal one, and the epilogue will testify to that – and more emotion than any scripted movie – the duel Japanese Grand Prix incidents that are focal points in the film, are riddled with dramatic tension, and trying to stop the bottom lip trembling as Senna reacts to the fatal accidents that became pre-cursors to his own, is truly heartbreaking stuff.


And then there is the crash, and by the time it arrives you‘ve almost forgotten it’s going to happen as you’ve been seduced for 90mins by this charismatic young daredevil, a side of his character that Senna  courageously never shy’s away from, his risk taking and questionable approach to driving safety feature prominently.


The impact of that day is effectively heightened by the kinetic way in which the race footage transfers to the big screen; the speed is unfathomable, what is seemingly pedestrian on television is frightening on the large canvas, so much so that you hang onto the chair arms as the on-car camera dances around the track. The Latin infused drum dominated soundtrack assists brilliantly in building the tension.


Arguably the best sports documentary since When We Were Kings, Senna is a life-affirming experience for any persuasion. You owe it to yourself to get into gear and watch it.