24 June 2011

SENNA- Review

Although I profess that I have no particular interest or investment in Formula 1, this year's most popular breakthrough documentary isn't the first I've heard of three-time world champion, Ayrton Senna. Up to a certain point, I was one of those hangers-on who watched BBC Two's Top Gear, and last year, I saw their much-lauded tribute segment. It's one of the best films I ever saw on the programme, at once exciting and informative, and I didn't forget it when the fuss began about Senna.

So what does this film have to offer in its 106 minutes that the Top Gear crew didn't cover in its 13 minutes? Well, the film covers Senna's 11-year career in Formula 1, during which he battled with the politicisation of the sport, held a long but basically good-natured rivalry with Alain Prost, and of course, won three world championship titles. All of that's covered comprehensively, and not only is it the best documentary I've seen in ages, but one of the best films of 2011, full stop.

If you skipped over that link above, I strongly advise you to go back and watch that great short film, either before or after you see its feature-length equivalent. The thing about Jeremy Clarkson's take on Senna is that it deploys talking-heads shots from authoritative figures such as Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, as well as Clarkson's own take, punctuated by footage of Senna from the time. But here's the thing about Senna- director Asif Kapadia has not shot a single frame of new footage for his film.

It seems rare when documentaries like these focus on one figure and one figure only. The usual crossover successes focus on the economy, or war, or penguins, or something; not to mention how the form as a whole has been muddied slightly by both found-footage films and more tongue-in-cheek or mediated docs like Catfish or Exit Through The Gift Shop. But Senna isn't just a documentary about one person and one person only, it's also a documentary that gets more intimate and personal than would seem possible, with a subject who passed away 20 years ago.

Throughout the film, I was struck by the driver's passing resemblance to James Franco. It would be so very easy to make a "based on a true story" film about Ayrton Senna's life, starring Franco, but that would be riddled with the tropes and clich├ęs that always come hand in hand with telling an amazing true story. You end up telling a story about a legend, and not the man. By only using footage of the man himself, Kapadia has created a staggeringly comprehensive film that brings us as close to the man as possible.

The real skill of editors Chris King and Gregers Sall is that it unfolds in the manner of a fictionalised account, with a recognisable structure, and yet it's all the more potent for only using existing footage from 20-odd years ago. King also edited Exit Through The Gift Shop, which means he's now, to my mind, the greatest editor currently working in film. The narrative flows so readily and as beautifully as if the filmmakers had, impossibly, planned the real events themselves to fit that way.

Admittedly, there are elements left out of Kapadia's exhaustive assessment of Senna's life that actually crop up in the Top Gear film, most notably, the moment when he risked his neck to save Eric Comas, a rival driver who had an accident during a race. But that's why I'm telling you to watch the Top Gear film too- Senna picks its moments, focusing more on in-depth coverage of moments that tell you who he was, than on blanket coverage of anything that ever happened to him.

And yet the film is not exclusively partisan or hagiographic. Perhaps Kapadia takes the edge off of some of the driver's recklessness (again, see the Top Gear tribute for more), but he wastes no time in impressing upon his audience what a fearless sportsman he was. His compassion is less emphasised, but the visuals tell the story when we see his funeral at the end of the film. Ayrton Senna died in a racing accident, aged only 34, and yet the love of his fans and the shock of his death is never more apparent than when we see the mourners.

There's not a didactic bone in the film. The new interviews provide hindsight and context for the footage we're seeing, but they're part of the narration, so they don't take us out of the picture. The feel of it is akin to actually watching this story develop in real life. While we're on the topic, I also have to praise Antonio Pinto's score. The footage, digitally projected, isn't the HD picture that audiences are used to, but Pinto's music is cinematic without overwhelming the visuals. He's not telling us what to feel, he's being led by the footage.

You might think that Senna's real creative difficulty is that all of the events actually happened, and were presumably documented by people with no intention of one day having their work featured on the silver screen. No matter how presumably gargantuan the task of making the film must have been, the finished result is still extremely impressive, often very moving and utterly absorbing, regardless of how clued up you are on Formula 1. If you're unsure, have a little faith and check it out on the big screen.

Senna is still playing in select cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Senna, why not share your comments below?

 I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

NerdyRachelMay said...

I loved this. I went to a packed screening and not one person left until the credits had fully finished.
I totally fell in love with him. It's a shame they couldn’t include the famous Comas clip in the main film because it totally summed up what kind of man he was, full of compassion but then as soon as Comas was alright Senna was straight back in his car and back in the race.
I love the F1 (Ayrton’s nephew Bruno raced for Hispania last year and wears the same yellow and green helmet) but it’s not a film exclusively for fans, it’s such a cinematic story and he’s just got the most magnetic personality. It’s my favourite film of the year so far.