RACING SUPERSTAR Ayrton Senna was handsome, famous, supernaturally talented and, because he was all of those things, compulsively photographed.
His life and the footage that captured it intersect in the engrossing documentary "Senna," assembled by director Asif Kapadia from an enormous trove of material covering Senna's '80s/'90s career as a Formula One driver, augmented by talk-shows, variety shows, paparazzi tape and home movies taken by Senna's well-to-do Brazilian family. There is video of Senna's violent death at age 34 on the track, preceded by race-day images taken from the driver's dashboard camera.
Kapadia assembled it into a lively biography unusual for its "real time" contributions from important principals - we know what they thought and said at key moments, because it's all on tape. Even backroom complaint-sessions among race officials and drivers were recorded and replayed here.
Much of "Senna" involves the Brazilian driver's rivalry with established French champion Alain Prost, and it's a classic contrast in athletic style.
Prost is a technician and politician whose spot on the top McLaren team and mastery of rules and regulations make him almost unbeatable. Senna is the natural talent, the mercurial artist whose raw ability unnerves and eventually unseats Prost, who is Salieri to Senna's Mozart.
Prost is also a pragmatist who scoffs at what Senna describes as racing's spiritual element. Senna talks of racing not merely to beat the man ahead of him, but to achieve some sort of driving bliss that leaves him closer to God.
This leads to the movie's most trenchant and perhaps prescient observation - Prost says that Senna is dangerous because his claim to being touched by grace has left him with the mistaken idea that he cannot kill himself.
"Senna," however, posits that the root of Senna's early death is probably mechanical. Computerized balance and suspension were changing Formula One racing in the 1990s, creating tech advantages that were bestowed and then suddenly taken away. This leaves the cars unstable, and Senna is driving one when he smashes into a wall at 150 mph.
The accident is photographed, of course, and there is additional footage of near-dead Senna being treated at the track, then whisked away by helicopter.
It goes without saying that there is footage of his public funeral, of grieving friends and family, of an inconsolable Brazilian public, for whom Senna was a national hero.
Most affecting are images of Senna, whose wistful face often seems to betray a haunted sense of looming death, as though he's looking at his instrument panel, checking the gauge that measures longevity, aware that his time is running out.