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.
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.