Spanning the decade from Ayrton Senna's arrival in Formula One in the mid '80s, this documentary follows Senna's struggles both on track against his nemesis, French World Champion Alain Prost, and off it, against the politics which infest the sport. Sublime, spiritual yet, on occasion, ruthless – Senna conquers and transcends Formula One to become a global superstar.

A fitting tribute to a remarkable man.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Senna is a documentary masterwork. Asif Kapadia’s exhaustive compilation of archival footage is a work of consummate filmmaking artistry in and of itself, yet each frame merges into a cohesive single entity that profoundly serves the legend of one of the greatest sports personalities that ever lived.

Kapadia paints a portrait of Ayrton Senna as a man driven by an unshakable personal belief and dogged spiritual faith. Senna’s personality emerges as one so compulsively attractive it consumed not only the egocentric, Alpha male world of Formula 1 competition but also the national psyche of his homeland, Brazil. The film captures perfectly the joie de vivre that Senna inspired in his fellow citizens at a time when poverty and corruption were gutting the country.

Kapadia understands that the Formula 1 universe is a complex one, driven by greed, ambition and purely kinetic sporting energy. The director doesn’t short-change his portrayal of key influences on Senna’s career, mindful that clashes with authority, commercial interests and fellow drivers were all part of what made Senna the driver and, more broadly, the enigmatic celebrity that he became. Most fascinating is the film’s depiction of Senna’s on- and off-track rivalry with the great French driver, Alain Prost, his father-like friendship with head medico Sid Watkins, and the fearless confrontations with Formula 1 boss Jean-Marie Balestre over driver safety, rule interpretation and perceived politicking.

For the revheads who remember Senna as the greatest driver who ever lived, the footage of his rise through the ranks will be exhilarating. But Kapadia’s film is not about the sport per se, though insights into its running and the physical stresses of driving a Formula 1 car are fascinating. The director’s intent is to seek greater, more personal truths: What type of personality risks it all for the sake of speed? What were the familial and social elements that helped form the man that a sport and a nation grew to love? Did the sport’s embracing of technology and science over human skill prove his fatal undoing?

Knowledge of the crash which claimed Senna’s life begins to pall over the film at about the 80-minute mark. Kapadia has so winningly captured the essence of the man that the realisation that Senna’s demise is imminent makes for stomach-tightening viewing; the director’s construction of the footage from that fateful day is precise, frame-perfect filmmaking. The extended single-shot sequence leading to the 300 miles-per-hour impact – a mounted-camera in-car point-of-view that puts the audience on a collision course with the moment of Senna’s death – is one of the boldest directorial decisions in recent memory.

The footage of his passing (the last Formula 1 fatality, touch wood) has dominated retrospectives of Ayrton Senna’s career. Asif Kapadia’s film finally provides a far more fitting tribute to the competitive greatness the Brazilian driver exemplified. Senna not only celebrates the man’s many sporting triumphs, but the integrity, vision and passion with which he achieved them.

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1 hour 46 min
In Cinemas 11 August 2011,
Thu, 12/08/2011 - 11