Saturday, 13 August 2011


Universal Pictures
Now Showing

For those with an aversion to motor sports, Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna, about the career and untimely death of Brazilian Formula 1 racing champion Ayrton Senna, might seem like a film to avoid. And I completely understand those reservations. I, too, have no interest in car racing (or cars generally); I mean, is Formula 1 even a sport? Sure it requires technical skills but, as far as I can tell, not much athleticism.

But like the best documentaries, Senna rises above its subject matter, drawing us into its world and the life story of this young man of privilege who had a need for speed and, what's more, a genuine ability to race; starting out in go-kart racing before graduating to Formula 1 where he very quickly rose to the top of the sport.

That rise, however meteoric or because of it, wasn't without its speed bumps including several run-ins with the governing body of the sport (the Europeans weren't so impressed with the South American upstart) and, quite literally, with the sport's then number one racer, Frenchman Alain Prost.

Rivals from the beginning, and even more so when they became teammates, Senna and Prost were, to reference a sport I'm more familiar with, the Federer-Nadal of Formula 1 in the mid-80s to mid-90s, though unlike the friendly Swiss and Spaniard tennis players, Senna and Prost genuinely hated each other.

It's this focus on the rivalry which drew me in to Senna, a film I had feared, despite great reviews and word of mouth by friends who had seen it at this year's Sydney Film Festival, I would not be able to engage with because of said disinterest in all things automotive (I don't even like Cars and that's Pixar!).

But about 20 minutes in when the rivalry heats up, my defenses came down. And it does so despite consisting almost entirely of racing footage - from both a spectator's point of view as well as the cockpit of Senna's own car - balanced out with home video footage of the Brazilian, from childhood until his on-track death in 1994. Kapadia avoids the use of talking head interviews but many of Senna's colleagues in the racing industry, as well as his sister, provide commentary.

But not Alain Prost. A film needs a good villain and Prost, unwittingly, fills that role perfectly in Senna, which may be unfortunate for the Frenchman given his heavy involvement with the charity set-up by Ayrton Senna's family in the driver's name following his death.

Kapadia could also be accused of producing a hagiography given the almost saintly light in which the Brazilian is viewed. But biased or not, Senna remains a captivating sports documentary and like the best of that genre, can be enjoyed by those with little or no interest in the "sport" in question.


  1. Really glad you liked it. It's been pulling solid numbers at Palance Norton this weekend. Nothing compared to Jane Eyre though. A lot of people are basing their trip to the cinemas on the 10/10 in the SMH haha. Oh well, I feel like I got some people in over the last few weeks. I have been plugging it whenever I got the chance. Can't wait to see it again!

  2. Yes, I went in a skeptic and came out converted - to the strength of the film, not Formula 1 (it's still a snooze). Though not a huge fan of the new Jane Eyre, I am glad it is doing well; its trending on twitter over the weekend (and not Green Lantern) was a pleasant surprise.