Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Senna (2010)

Seen: On our big screen/projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

Going on numerous claims of its best-of-the-year/best-documentary-ever-type status, it seemed worthwhile to give Senna a try despite my lack of interest/knowledge in racing. Ayrton Senna was a wildly popular Brazilian Formula One racer in the 1980's and early 90's. With an intense, almost obsessive dedication and fearless driving style, he won 3 world championships and appeared to be unstoppable until his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The film deals almost exclusively with his professional racing career- especially his rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost-, with some mention of his family life and Christian spirituality.

So here's the thing about Senna: It is entirely composed of archive footage from Senna's races, interviews, and personal life, with some voiceovers from family members and no expository narration. While this makes for a more narratively consistent, filmic viewing experience, it also limits how much of our protagonist's story can actually be told, and how explanatory the filmmakers can be. I admit I know basically nothing about racing or cars, and had no idea who Ayrton Senna was or any of the other people discussed in the film. This means that the constant references to racing terms and minutiae were lost on me, and made it difficult for me to follow some of the conversations and problems brought up during Senna's career. It also means that there is very little insight into his personal life, with passing glimpses of girlfriends and a few words from his immediate family members. The whole movie is really just racing.

WHICH I'm sure is fine for people who are into it, and that's cool! I just don't actually care about racing at all except when it's like, Burt Reynolds or something. All the technical stuff meant nothing to me, and I got bored of constantly watching loud little cars speeding down a winding track. Sorry racing fans. It was also frustrating that there are many things mentioned that aren't really elaborated on or brought up again, from Senna's various romances (I had to find out from wikipedia that he was married at one point?) and early experiences to his relationship with his Brazilian public (the nation was struggling and he became an important sign of hope) and his charity work. It might have been nice to have his religious leanings gone into a little more, too, since it seemed like a central part of his personal outlook but I wasn't even sure what denomination he was or how he came to be so devout.

Ok so this is way too much negativity. Senna is an interesting documentary. I learned a lot about a topic I was completely unfamiliar with, and I applaud the filmmakers' use of existing footage to create a respectful portrait of their deceased subject. For the most part it is an engaging and informative film, I just found it far too narrow in focus. I know this isn't necessarily a failing of the film itself, though, since part of it stems from my own tastes. I guess what disappoints me most is that I had come under the impression that this was a great documentary even for viewers who weren't familiar with pro racing; I have to conclude that's not necessarily so.


Pair This Movie With: Um something else about racing, I guess? I haven't seen too many, and the ones that come to mind aren't very good (Cars, Stroker Ace, The Fast and the Furious movies, etc). Or maybe another sports-type documentary? I haven't really seen... any. So, sorry. You're on your own.


  1. Interesting - I absolutely loved Senna, though I was a big fan of the man himself as a youngster (I'm not so much into F1 these days). I got the impression from watching that you didn't have to be that big a sport fan at all to enjoy it, so it's fascinating to read a review from someone coming to the film with a genuinely blank slate.

    As a documentary pairing, a great contrast would be Emir Kusturica's take on another great South American sporting legend: Maradona. Whereas Asif Kapadia eschews a narrative framing, letting the archive footage tell the story, Kusturica is much more front-and-centre with his directorial voice, and is clearer about what he wants the audience to think of his subject.

  2. Multiplex Slut: Yeah I think people who liked him anyway and were into the sport can appreciate this movie more. And thank you for the double feature recommendation!

  3. I really like F1 racing but I havent seen "Senna" yet. There are some really good movies about racing. Check out the 1968's "Grand Prix". It features James Garner, Jessica walter, Antonio Sabato, Eve Marie Saint, Brian Bedford. "le Mans" with Steve McQueen is very visual but with little dialogue. "Winning" with Paul Newman is cool too.

  4. I enjoyed Senna a lot but didn't spin off in the excessive raves so many did over it. I felt that the entire archive subgenre easily get a little dry and so was the case with this one. However, when growing up F1 was as its peak with Senna until he died so I remember a lot of these events.

    Also I hope you get an awesome birthday all about you!