Senna reviewed: a riveting Formula One documentary about the purity of sport.

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Aug. 18 2011 8:20 PM

Senna

A riveting Formula One documentary about the purity of sport.

Still from Senna. Click image to expand.

Senna (Universal Pictures) the first documentary feature from British director Asif Kapadia ( The Warrior, Far North) remains, like the man at its center, a seductive enigma. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver who amassed three world championships before his death at age 34, appears in the film as an abstract ideal of the athlete. He's driven by the sheer love of speed, and a desire to win so pure it's like animal instinct. Though the film immerses us in the details of Senna's life and the world of Formula One for 104 thrilling minutes, we leave still wondering both who Senna was and how Formula One racing works. The first of these two things is ultimately unknowable, now that the man is no longer here to tell us. The second, on the other hand, is eminently knowable and something the movie could have done a better job of explaining.

Senna may leave the non-racing-fan viewer craving a primer in this sport's rules and culture, but it excels at immersing us in the sensations of racing—at times placing us right inside the car with the driver during a race. This sleek, narration-free documentary hurtles elegantly through the last few years of Senna's life—the years of his peak career wins, his most excruciating losses, and his legendary rivalry with the French driver Alain Prost.

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When I say that Senna and Prost's rivalry was "legendary," that's not just a synonym for "well-known." The relationship between the two men was the stuff of legend. Watching them envy, disappoint, betray, and enrage one another feels as emotionally rich as a Greek tragedy or a Shakespeare play. Prost, who drove alongside Senna on the McLaren-Honda team, was an established star when the younger, more handsome Brazilian became his teammate and chief competitor in 1988. Known as "the Professor," Prost was a cautious, canny driver who was less invested in finishing in first place than in playing the sport's point system so as to assure a technical win. Senna, on the other hand, was a tortured poet behind the wheel, deliberately naive about the politics of racing but fiercely devoted to coming in first.

Since much of the film's drama comes from what happens between these two men, I'll stop there, except to observe that by film's end viewers may be shaking a fist to the heavens William Shatner-style and shouting "PROST!" Like Kirk and Khan, Senna and Prost share an enmity that's at times indistinguishable from love.

One racing colleague describes Senna as driving with "an intellect"; another commentator likens his way of pushing a car to the limits of its abilities to dancing. "I was in a different dimension," says Senna himself in an interview, recalling a crucial 1988 race. "The circuit for me was eternal—I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding." Later, when Senna wins his first Brazilian Grand Prix—a race that, though he's already taken the more prestigious world title, signifies to him country and home—we're inside the car with him as he lets out a long, unearthly scream of joy, then breaks down in helpless sobs. Senna's operatic expressivity is a world away from the monosyllabic stoicism of American athletes, but Senna makes the case (without ever stating it outright) that the spiritual transport Senna describes is the highest aim of all athletic endeavor. It's a movie that's as much about sport itself as it is about the sport of auto racing.

The film only hints at the contradictions of Senna the man, who was both intensely religious and unapologetically worldly—the playboy son of a wealthy family, he dated celebrities and used female interviewers for flirting practice. The lack of social and political context can also be frustrating. Senna came along at a moment when Brazil was slowly emerging from decades of military dictatorship and ruinous inflation, which may have accounted in part for how immediately and completely he became an object of national adoration. It didn't hurt that Senna was impossibly beautiful, with a face straight from a Pasolini film or a Caravaggio painting. Senna feels a touch too short to be fully realized—but, then again, so was Ayrton Senna's life.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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