Show and Tell, by Charles Lyons
Asif Kapadia’s stirring new documentary Senna tracks the rise to fame and subsequent 15-year success period of eponymous Formula One driver Ayrton Senna on levels personal, national, and global. The film is made up entirely of archival footage—races, interviews, press conferences, news stories—and backed by voiceover narration by a whole slew of the sport’s experts, commentators, and those who knew him most intimately. In other words, fans of the probing perspectives, digressions, and reenactments of Errol Morris and James Marsh need look elsewhere. The movie follows Senna as he copes with excessive public exposure, his introduction (and subsequent adjustment to) to the political corruption and bias of F1, as well as the considerable anxiety and burden that is intrinsic to professional sport. Kapadia also focuses his lens in on the legendary driver’s contentious partnership with Alain Prost, as well as his constant stream of policy-related controversies.
Kapadia finds heated conflict in every composition, race, conversation, and image. His Senna is a film that still intrigues and emanates tension, no matter if its audience is aware of its subject’s ultimately tragic outcome, or are experts on any of its central sport’s particulars. Clashes of man vs. environmental condition and man vs. societal expectation, among others, certainly assist to fuel Senna‘s dramatic engine, but it’s the filmmaker’s commendable, innovative use of voiceover via which the most optimal dramatic tensions are elicited. The words spoken on the film’s soundtrack are more often than not at fascinating odds with the images Kapadia presents. Mere minutes into the movie, narration extolling Senna’s virtues and successes is splayed across a striking visual of the man, sitting motionless in his vehicle, obscuring his face and wracked with readily apparent stress and inner turmoil. Senna is, in fact, often defined by the pronounced interplay and disharmony between show and tell.
For a film that revolves around a sport which entails metal vehicles clanking around on an asphalt surface, much is made of the body and its language, the other primary source of Senna’s taught cadence. From beginning to end Kapadia is obsessed with the human figure and the wordless messages it sends, even in a world where focus is often placed less on the human and more on vehicle they’re operating. In a rare moment of voiceover-image accord, a spectator speaks breathlessly on the relationship between Senna and Prost, whose professional unity doesn’t translate off the racetrack. As the narrator speaks, we’re privy to a clip of the two racers post-competition, each’s arm tensely wrapped around the other’s shoulder. The pair’s body language is, thrillingly, all we need to understand their heavily-publicized rancor; uncomfortable, spiky, stiff. Later, a rather abrupt change in Ayrton’s temperament and air is brought to the audience’s attention, an evolution into a more self-assured, almost self-aggrandizing figure. But the key to understanding the man’s adjustment can be found not in what little literal description the filmmaker lends, but in a shot of him contentedly sprawled across a lounge chair on the deck of a large, expensive-looking boat. Senna, though definitely a wordy movie, relies on the honesty of the body to tell the brunt of the story, and to illustrate many of its inherent conflicts.
Yet one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, at its core, Senna is a story well-told; elegantly, efficiently, if not masterfully. (It’s a bit unremarkable, a touch undercooked, and little choppy, yet one’s absolute engagement hardly ceases.) It’s also a doc that, apart from its questionable opening pre-credits sequence, never succumbs to simplistic hero worship. Indeed, Kapadia presents a refreshingly multifaceted, warts-and-all portrait of the legendary driver, nearly top-notch in terms of quality of characterization and integrity of depiction. The movie definitely acknowledges the tragedy of the historic athlete’s demise but isn’t afraid to bring his weaknesses and vulnerabilities to the forefront of things. Ayrton’s brashness and sense of assumed privilege are conveyed just as clearly and apparently as his admirable determination, yearn for the purity of competition, and steadfast integrity.
Senna is also a subtly-drawn case study of the way in which we escape into the public dramas of our idols, celebrities, and icons to buffer the pain of our own problems. As was previously alluded to in paragraph one, Kapadia’s film isn’t just an examination of the effects of Senna’s successes, innovations, and record-shattering racing on a personal level, but on a much larger scale as well. The director capably and poignantly analyzes the way that the struggling people of Ayrton’s native Brazil found solace in his wins and worldwide fame, cannily sidestepping what could’ve easily devolved into an exploitation of the people’s problems. Kapadia frequently depicts the buildup and aftermath of races from an everyday fan’s perspective, carefully selecting footage that conveys the experience of others watching whatever is taking place, rather than simply footage of the event itself. This is a careful decision on Kapadia’s part, depicting athletic competition as a universally shared experience. In doing this, he evens out the hierarchy of the player-to-viewer dynamic, poignantly recognizing that the fan is as much a part of the game as the player.
Handled in an equally attentive, sensitive manner are Senna‘s devastating spiritual elements, possibly the film’s greatest asset. Kapadia finds heartbreaking material in Ayrton’s religious insistence, his attribution of all of his triumph to God, and his unshakable devotion to that higher power. The film’s director thankfully stays far clear of the potentially cruel irony this dedication could strike with the man’s fate, instead envisioning his accidental death less as a spiteful act of God and more as a peaceful, if bittersweet casualty (a prolonged shot of the man’s send-off in an evocatively airborne helicopter emerges as the movie’s late-in-game highlight). If parts here and there feel underdeveloped, Senna makes up for it with hefty impact what it loses in its unattended-to loose ends.