Audiences don’t need to be familiar with or give a damn about Formula One racing to get drawn into Senna, a finely wrought documentary about Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, known both for his incredible talent and his death at age 34 at the infamous 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna is considered one of motorsporting’s greats, but Asif Kapadia’s film also makes it clear he was a sort of artist, his talent accompanied by an unquenchable thirst for excellence and a belief that racing offered him a connection to God.
Kapadia composes Senna entirely out of archival footage, of Senna on the track and off, preparing for races, relaxing at home, being interviewed by the press as his fame grew, and jittering in the corner of a car-mounted camera as the road goes by impossibly fast beneath him. Contributions from commentators, friends, family, and his rival Alain Prost take place over audio, the speaker identified in text onscreen, but the gaze is always on Senna, as a young man competing in karting’s “pure racing,” making his name in the rainy conditions in which he excelled, and clashing with Federation Internationale de l’Automobile head Jean-Marie Balestre. It’s an uncannily dramatic arc, particularly at the height of Senna’s competition with Prost, which spanned several years. Their relationship became genuinely antagonistic, and ended only when Prost retired after being faced with the prospect of being Senna’s teammate for a second time.
Prost, nicknamed “The Professor” for his calculated approach, was cool-headed and adept with F1 politics, whereas Senna seemed to thrive on risks and couldn’t help speaking out, sometimes to his detriment. There’s no better example of their divide than when, at the race that decided the 1989 Championship, the two ran off the road. Senna returned to the track and masterfully won the race against all odds, though Prost successfully requested his disqualification for illegally cutting a chicane. But Prost isn’t villainized—his displeasure with Senna’s aggression seems all too justified, given the danger of the sport and what seems to be foreshadowing of death everywhere.
The thread of tragedy running through Senna isn’t just due to awareness of how its subject died, as one of two drivers killed in an accident-heavy race that led to reevaluation of F1 safety. Senna himself, boyishly handsome, beloved in his home country, is a figure of melancholy too, so devoted to a sport in which the human behind the wheel is only one element, it would be impossible for him to meet his own standards.