When I was teaching ESL way back whenever, I would sometimes set my students the task of preparing a short talk to give before the class. There was one student, a Japanese girl named Yumi, who stood out as slightly eccentric and very intelligent. I was taken aback when she announced she’d be giving her talk on Ayrton Senna. Yumi a revhead? Surely not!
Well, turned out she was, and a motorcycle mama into the bargain. And obsessed with the recently departed Senna. Not for the first time or the last, a lesson for the teacher on the folly of stereotyping – and I’m referring to my stereotyping of both Yumi and Senna.
That lesson should be applied to this documentary by those who, like me, have no interest in Formula One. This enthralling film far transcends its obvious subject matter, although it must be said that the world of Formula One as depicted here is undeniably thrilling for its danger and on-track spectacle. The white-knuckle sequences in which the viewer is put behind the wheel via a camera fixed to the driver’s car as it hurtles to the next corner at 300KPH plus will get yer adrenalin pumping and yer heart thumping regardless of your attitude towards motor racing sport. Further, the fly-on-the-wall views of behind-the-scenes politics and drivers’ meetings are intriguing, and the playing out of the intense rivalry on and off-circuit between Senna and his arch-foe, French superstar Alain Prost, has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. Just rivetting.
Above all, though, Senna is a compelling insight into an extraordinary and complex man. Called to motor racing from an early age, Senna’s progression from adolescent go-cart racing champion to Formula One superstar seemed preordained. There is the sense throughout the film that one is witnessing the freakish documentation-as-it-happens of a man fulfilling a destiny in which he has a Christ-like belief. It is as if there was foreknowledge that his was a story worth telling, that he was filmed from the outset with the conscious intent of recording his life for posterity. There are no dramatic reconstructions, most of the content apparently filmed as it happened. Of course, the work necessarily draws on bio-doc personal history reconstruction devices such as retrospective interviews of peers and significant others, but to a far lesser extent than is usually the case. The inevitable manipulation through selection of what to include and what to leave out that is implicit – and too often explicit – in any historical or biographical work is unnervingly subtle. The filmmakers manage through some wizardry to create the illusion that they are content to allow the footage to speak for itself.
Illusion this most certainly is; there is consummate craft behind the suspense leading up to the crash that kills Senna. In a work of fiction, prior knowledge of the ending detracts from the suspense, but here that very knowledge works to build suspense. Senna appears agitated and troubled in the moments before getting into the car that will take him to his death. When the POV switches to his on-board camera as he belts around the circuit drawing ever closer to the critical moment, you wait, and wait, and wait, breathless in the awful certainty of what is to come.
Senna had an unswerving belief in God and, it seemed, was rewarded for his faith. Indeed, his legendary fearlessness on the track might have derived from a sense that God was protecting him, but as Alain Prost prophetically observes in a post-race interview some years before the fatal crash, such belief can be dangerous. In the context of this life story, it is impossible not to wonder whether Senna’s God’s ultimate price in giving everything was to take it all away. Or as an interviewee comments towards the end of the movie, perhaps his luck simply ran out.
Whatever, Senna was seemingly shackled to his destiny. When a close friend suggests to him just prior to his last race that he has nothing more to achieve in F1 and that the time is right to walk away, he replies that he cannot. Again, there are echoes of Christ in this apparent resignation to his fate. Indeed, the fact that aspects of F1 racing Senna considered unsafe were addressed as a result of his death makes him something of a sacrifical lamb. Certainly, he was a larger than life figure, especially for the impoverished and repressed people of Brazil, for whom he was a national hero and a towering beacon of hope.
It is appropriate, then, but nevertheless surprising, that this bio should dip into the territory of myth and the mystical. In so doing, it evokes the great unanswerables that are part of Senna’s story and our stories, and leaves you pondering for days after. Such is the power and scope of this film. See it.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives