‘Senna’ a film by Asif Kapadia. 2010. UK/France/USA 1hr 46mins.

by Geoff Hall on June 23, 2011

‘Senna’ is a 2011 Sundance Winner. A Working Title Film.
I was coming out of the cinema in Bristol and someone behind said to his girlfriend, “Well, that was a sombre film!” However, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, it does end with Senna’s death, but  it works on so many different levels. 

This film leaves you with both a sense of  presence and absence, along with a feeling of wonder, as Ayrton Senna’s skill as a Formula One driver is clearly visible.

Kapadia does well to deal with the hours of footage showing Senna’s tenacity and vulnerability as well as his despair, as the sport he loves becomes the victim of ‘Political Intrigue’. If I came out of my viewing with a sense of awe for Senna the Man and Senna the Speed King, then it is sharply contrasted with nothing but suspicion and regret for the attitude and conniving of the then President of F1, Jean-Marie Baptiste. In any sport, when politics raises its ugly head, the sport in question is left tainted. 

Certainly in ‘Senna’, the viewer has the distinct impression that Prost could attribute one of his championships to Baptiste. (If you are a football fan, you will know all about this kind of European transparent opacity, with the wheeler-dealing of FIFA and the recent World Cup bids).

The task of editing this documentary took three years. The first cut was 7 hours long, but eventually Kapadia managed to get it down to 1 hour and 46 mins! Within the footage we see the most harrowing images – that of the twisted body of Martin Donnelly in the middle of the track, after his crash at Jerez in September 1990 – and from which, amazingly, he survived. It presaged more anxious moments, including the crash of Rubens Barrichello, whose car overturned after hitting a tyre-wall and of course the death of Roland Ratzenberger the day before Senna’s fatal crash at Imola (1994). The tension is cranked up, we know what is coming, but the anxiety for Senna grows.

I like films with a redemptive thread and no-one would have been able to predict redemption as a possibility after seeing the tense behind-the-scenes footage of the relationship between Senna and Alain Prost. That is until the final credits roll and we are told that Prost is on the Board of Trustees for the Senna Institute, a charity which helps Brazilian children from under-privileged backgrounds complete an education. So, there is reconciliation after the conflict and passion of F1!

A friend told me of a review on BBC Radio 4 which complained that the film made Ayrton Senna look like a ‘spiritual man’, which in the reviewer’s eyes he clearly was not. 

However, listening to the interviews with Ayrton it is clear that he had faith and that having prayed after Ratzenberger’s death on the previous day, he read his Bible. We are informed that God told Senna he’d be given more than life could give, God would give Ayrton Senna…Himself.  And that is exactly what happens at his death.  Not bad for someone who is just a great racing driver! 

The film doesn’t idolise Senna, it shows a man of faith, of charisma, probably the greatest F1 driver of all time, along with his shortcomings and aggressive competitive spirit. It seems that under the scrutiny of a Secular press you can either be spiritual and therefore of no earthly use, or talented and the greatest driver the world has ever seen, but you can’t be both spiritual and talented! Alas, dear reviewer, Senna was both – which must be really frustrating for you!

Go and see this film while you can and be amazed at a great human story, a story well told by Asif Kapadia. Senna is one of my heroes! A man of faith, with great compassion for the poor and a darn good F1 driver.

Peace and Love,


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