Catholicism at high speed


Senna (M). Director: Asif Kapadia. Starring: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost. 106 minutes

The word 'mercurial' evokes both its earthly and divine connotations when applied to the career of three time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna.

During the decade from 1984, the enigmatic Brazilian branded the world of auto racing with his brazen ability and driving genius. He was good-looking, humble and charming, and inspired the kind of admiration and hysteria often reserved for movie stars. What's more, his unabashed public proclamations of religious faith added to his mystical aura: he was quite literally a messenger of God.

Senna is a compelling documentary of his remarkable career. It is assembled from archival footage (including televised race and interview footage, white-knuckle sequences captured by on-board cameras, and Senna family home videos), and knitted together by recollections, in voiceover, from Senna's family, journalists, and his racing nemesis and former teammate, Frenchman Alain Prost.

You do not have to be a racing afficionado to enjoy this gripping account. It is a meditation on humanity and mortality as much as it is a great sports documentary. Senna is a fascinating subject, and his story a tragedy of the highest order: his career and his life came to a sudden end on an Italian Grand Prix circuit in 1994, when he was aged just 34. This fate looms throughout the film.

Senna's faith is a central tenet of his character. Winning is not a goal but a necessity (because why compete if you do not win?), and he credits his victories to God. And although he feels his failures deeply, through the lessons learnt and progressions made from them he grows closer to God.

Prost at one point accuses him of conflating faith with indestructibility; Senna differs, affirming, ominously, that in the high-speed sport of Formula One, he is ever conscious of his own mortality.

The rivalry with Prost is tensely evoked. It, perhaps more than anything, proved to be the greatest test of Senna's character. He both won and lost world titles to Prost on the basis of technicalities. In these instances, the film posits implicit, unresolved questions regarding the apportioning of blame.

During the penultimate race of the 1989 season, in Japan, Senna crossed the finishing line first, but was disqualified after Prost, an astute politician within the sport, reported him on a technical breach; Prost walked away with the title. The following year, Senna claimed the title on a technicality following an accident on that same track which prevented both himself and Prost from finishing the race.

Footage of Senna in the wake of this incident reveals him looking withdrawn, even sheepish. We are invited to infer that Senna may have employed kamikaze tactics to take the title, and perhaps to exact revenge for Prost's slight the previous year. If this is the case, then Senna, the philosophical proponent of 'pure racing' free from politics, must have felt deeply conflicted over this victory.

Such speculation remains muted; necessarily, given that Senna is not alive to speak for himself.

In fact understatement proves to be one of the film's great strengths. Rather than offering a garish, concrete image of a man he obviously admires, director Kapadia presents the evidence gently. He invites his audience to reflect deeply upon Senna's very human strengths and weaknesses, faith and fears. This is much more affecting and compelling than polemic or sensationalism would have been.

Arguably the Brazilian Senna's most ecstatic victory occurs when he wins on home turf. After leading for the entire race, Senna's car suffered a gearbox malfunction. But, determined to claim victory in front of his countrymen and women, he completed the final laps despite being stuck in sixth gear.

By the finish he was suffering severe shoulder and neck spasms due to the additional physical strain. Yet his agony did nothing to stifle his shrieks of delight, captured by the on-board microphone, or to stop him, on the winner's podium, from hoisting the trophy painfully but proudly above his head.

The moment underlines the hero status that Senna knew he held in his impoverished home country, where he was seen as a symbol of hope and inspiration, and where to this day the Ayrton Senna Institute works to improve the lot of Brazilian children. For emotional impact, this sequence is rivalled only by the film's tense, tragic retelling of the days that led to Senna's final, fatal drive in 1994.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was a member of the TeleScope jury at Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, film review, Asif Kapadia, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost



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Existing comments

Fast cars are one more absurd demonstration of the male ego’s ridiculous efforts to prove that it can defy death. One of the reasons Grand Prix fans go to the races is to see accidents and possibly death. They are attracted to the spectacle of young men narrowly escaping death and living to fight another day. But they are also attracted to death in the afternoon, just like the people who go to bullfights. Winning has always seemed to me preposterous in this context. Only a few men with fast reflexes can win a Grand Prix: it is barely a sport at all. And they are always the same dozen people. It’s absurd. As for the idea that God sides with the winners, this is not how I understand the Gospel at all, where God seems to be on the side of the losers. I personally wouldn’t have anything to do with a God that was only on the side of the winners, especially the winners of Grand Prix. One variable in all of this is Brazil which is, let’s face it, Brazil.

Desiderius Erasmus | 18 August 2011  

Yes, I agree with Desiderius. And one big flaw in Ayrton Senna's creed of winning is that it is entirely illogical: if God wanted him to win, then what about all the others? God wanted them to lose? When it boils down, Ayrton Senna's "faith" seems like a variant of individualistic prosperity faith. He must have felt really nonplussed and rejected when he lost.

Stephen Kellett | 18 August 2011  

Motor sport is a far cleaner and more beautiful thing than bullfighting, which consists of torturing a big dumb animal to death in an arena wearing a superhero costume. Watch motorcycle GPs for a view into another way of being a human being; leaning over at an extreme angle, a few centimetres from the ground, making instant choices about what is possible and what is just a millimetre too much. Those men (and a very occasional woman) are somehow angelic, in the sense of pure and uncomplicated by mundane worries for forty laps or so. I can't wait to see this film.

Penelope Cottier | 18 August 2011  

Tim, it sounds like everything you know about Ayrton Senna came from watching this film. As someone who has followed F1 for over thirty years, I would argue that Senna was actually quite reserved when it came to talking about his faith - far from the "messenger of God" mantle you bestow on him. As for Desiderius and Stephen, I'm glad to see the Gospel has touched you to such an extent that you don't judge others based on what you have read in a film review...

AB | 21 August 2011  

Fair enough, AB. I'll re-cast. The attitude - that one's successes are signs of God's favour -that Tim and/or the film maker attribute, whether accurately or not, to Ayrton Senna, is in fact a frequently held belief by many people. It's connected to the same attitude that interprets unexpected healings as miracles proving sanctity, but is not so innocuous. A personal creed that victories should be credited to God, seems not only logically flawed but suggests any failure must be disproportionately devastating and any success an ingredient in great hubris.

Stephen Kellett | 22 August 2011  

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