Senna (2010) – Asif Kapadia

The mark of a genius is the ability to break past previously accepted limitations. Mozart was said to have produced sounds that no one had ever heard before. Van Gogh could create colors that were theretofore unseen. Give a soccer ball to Pelé and you would see things done with it that other men cannot do. People talk about Pelé’s fellow Brazilian, Ayrtan Senna, with much the same reverence. When Senna was in a race car, they say, that car would do things that they aren’t designed for. The car would perform beyond its capabilities, beyond its physical and mechanical restrictions. That sort of genius is at the center of Senna (2010), the exhilarating documentary about the driver’s life, which was spent searching for the limit of what he could do in a race car and winning three Formula One world championships before he found it at the age of 34.

The documentary is told completely through archival footage of Senna’s Formula One career, which spanned 11 years and more than 150 races, of which he won more than a quarter. The movie examines the relationship his driving had with his faith, a belief in God that, in Senna’s mind, kept him safe in the car and actually brought him closer to the divine while he was driving. Because of the extraordinary amount of race footage, both from television feeds and on-vehicle cameras, and the remarkable existence of behind-the-scenes material including racers’ meetings, talk show interviews and home movies, the documentary is able to construct a fairly narrative film. It presents us with a hero in the classic mold: Senna came from an upscale background (his mother refers to his driving as “playing with his karts”), but he was a man of the people and proud of his native Brazil at a time when Brazilian pride was at a low ebb.

The movie even provides a villain in the person of Alain Prost, the French champion who was a teammate then a bitter rival of Senna’s, and they both cost each other any number of championships. Prost is the establishment, buddy-buddy with the French president of the racing federation, and is consistently Senna’s superior away from the racetrack when, sadly, far too many races are decided in meetings about regulations and protocol. But when put behind the wheel of a vehicle, especially in the rain when Senna excelled even more, our hero always came through. The movie argues it was one of those off-the-track decisions, the banning of certain computer steering technology, which led to Senna’s fatal crash, as Senna, in a car he didn’t trust, was thrown from the road on a routine turn.

It’s in this final sequence that Senna, which had already established itself as an intriguing documentary (the constructions of the individual races are particularly suspenseful and thrilling), emerges as a mystery. In preparation for the San Marino Grand Prix, the last race he’d ever participate in, Senna and the racing community are rocked by the death of a driver during qualifying. Senna, on a new team with a car that has already failed him before, looks dismayed and reluctant as he prepares for his race. Ominous signs come before him, he reads a fateful Bible verse the morning of the race, and his doctor implores him to retire. The look on his face as he gets into his car suggests something less than competition; it eerily reminds one of a face walking up to a gallows. The footage taken from the camera on Senna’s car, in which we see the exact images that last passed Senna’s eyes, produce an effect that only a documentary, something real, can render. When I think of Senna’s face, I must wonder if he somehow knew. Did he know that the machine he was entering, the one he used to get closer to God, would take him all the way this time?

Senna’s director, Asif Kapadia, let’s me speculate. It’s actually a neat trick that Kapadia pulls off: He has complete control of his story and reveals only what he wants to reveal while making it seem as if he’s revealed everything. As you’re watching the movie, it feels like a comprehensive look at the most important segment of the subject’s life; it isn’t until after the shattering moment of Senna’s death and an epilogue in which Senna reveals in an interview that his happiest moments of competition were racing Go-Karts in Brazil before he made it to Formula One that you realize that after spending 100 minutes with the man, Ayrton Senna remains an enigma.

Why did he have to go so fast? What was it that put him in a race car, or a Go-Kart, in the first place? Why did he respond “I can’t” when his doctor begged him to retire, especially after Prost, just as competitive and possibly as reckless, was able to hang it up after winning his fourth championship? Maybe that face before the San Marino Grand Prix, the gallows face, wasn’t unique to that race; perhaps that was the face Senna wore whenever he raced. Maybe he knew that every race could be his final one. What if he wanted it that way? The only person with those answers took them with him on that routine turn in Imola, and I think Kapadia knows this. Leaving these questions unanswered isn’t a failure, it’s a choice, and a strong one, to avoid an armchair psychiatrist’s attempt at figuring it out.

In a movie in which much of the racing specifics are deliberately explained, often over-explained, it’s curious that Senna’s personal life remains so unexamined. We see him with women but they aren’t identified. His private thoughts on a certain Formula One regulation are endlessly speculated upon, but not his relationship with his parents, even though they are prominent in the movie. It shows a great amount of restraint by Kapadia, and a tremendously deft hand, to provide an entertaining story on the surface, while subtly giving the thoughtful members of the audience all the tools to hypothesize about something deeper, all while not hypothesizing himself. That’s the difference between Senna and a made-for-television piece about an athlete. Senna stays with you because it knows so much about its subject and yet nothing at all, but it suggests that there would be so much to know. 

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