Film review: Senna 

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You might already be burned out on movies about automobiles, what with Transformers 3, Cars 2, and Drive, among others. Forget all those. There is only one truly essential movie this year about the relationship between man and machine, and that's Senna.

It's a singular movie about a singular man whose name most Americans have never heard, but it has been chanted by millions of fans throughout the world. Its legend is now being told in an unforgettable way in the new documentary by director Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, Far North). Using only archival footage, Kapadia charts the meteoric rise of Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who became a Formula One champion and arguably the greatest racecar driver of all time, achieving feats previously unimaginable and earning a place in the pantheon of legendary sportsmen. The talent exhibited by Kapadia's filmmaking is worthy of its subject.

Weaving together dramatic racing footage and behind-the-scenes interviews, Kapadia's narrative moves with propulsive force as it follows Senna's career from his breathtaking debut at Monaco in 1984 through his three world championships. The racing scenes recreate the feeling of both watching the events unfold and of being a participant in them, thanks to mini-cams mounted inside the race cars that give the viewer a first-person perspective.

But even more compelling than the on-track competition is the one that plays out between races. Senna's heated rivalry with fellow world-champion (and teammate) Alain Prost of France becomes the lens through which the film examines Senna's particular philosophy toward racing and life, but more expansively, the very nature of sport itself. The relationship between these two men is bonded, torn apart, and slowly mended over a period of remarkable athletic achievement. Their fraternal dynamic is the most human part of a story about superhuman aspirations.

Indeed, Senna was keenly aware of the divine in his death-defying pursuits, often speaking of the special connection he felt with God. Though the film veers close to hagiography, it artfully shows how such a transcendent talent can inspire reverence.

 

★★★

Senna

Dir. Asif Kapadia; writ. Manish Pandey; feat. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Jean-Marie Balestre (PG-13)

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