Monday 13 June 2011


Generally, the thought of going to the cinema to see a documentary isn't something that gets me excited. I remember watching "Zidane" on iPlayer and thanking my lucky stars that I hadn't bought a ticket for it, while the various offerings from conspiracy theorists, eco-warriors, and self-rightous anti-corporates all leave me cold.

Which makes "Senna" all the more impressive.

The film recounts the short, adult life of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian who battled his way to become Formula One champion three times in four years. Widely regarded as the greatest racing driver of all time, he was also the last F1 driver to be killed at the wheel, when he crashed at Imola in 1994.

It's a powerful and unusual piece of cinema. Unlike so many retrospective pieces, there are no talking heads, no faded contemporaries gazing back through misty-eyed nostalgia. Senna is on the screen almost all the time, with every frame of the film being footage from the relevant period in his life. When comments or opinions are needed to tell the story, they are from Senna himself, his family, or his team mates - and many bear the honesty of being recorded before Imola, when Senna was just a man, not a mourned, national treasure.

Yes, it's one-sided. We're given the intriguing narrative of Senna's rivalry with Prost, and his frustration with the sport's governing body, all from his point of view. We hear little about his family life, yet there is a lot about his quiet support for charities. But none of that matters. As the film progresses, there can be no doubt that this was one of the most determined and talented drivers ever born. His ability to control the car, taking staggering risks at a time when racing was terribly dangerous, is breathtaking.

And that's what makes it such a difficult film to watch. When you see other cars crash, you see it through Senna's eyes. You share his anguish as he stands in the pit garage, watching a monitor that displays the broken body of a fellow racer lying crumpled on the track outside. Later, you see him bow his head as it becomes clear that another of his opponents has just died in the wreckage of his car. And then, his face grim, you see him pull on his helmet and get ready to race again.

When the end draws near, you're as weary as he is. You've experienced the frustration, the disappointment and the heartache. You can almost understand his happiness when, on the morning of his death, his Bible reading promises him the greatest gift of all - being with God.

Usually, if I'm sitting in a cinema and things get a bit emotional, I get a grip by reminding myself that it's all make-believe, just actors on a set. Not so with this film. As the final race unfolds, you find yourself hoping against the inevitable. When the crash comes, there is nothing to cushion you from its impact - the knowledge that this happened long ago means nothing when the film has taken you so deeply into Senna's real, vibrant life.

It's an amazing film about an amazing man. See it and you'll know what I mean.

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