Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thrilling, tragic life of a race-car phenom

Brazilian racing star Ayrton Senna, subject of a riveting documentary.
Brazilian racing star Ayrton Senna, subject of a riveting documentary.
About the movie
MPAA rating:
for some strong language and disturbing images
Running time:
Release date:
Alain Prost; Milton da Silva; Ron Dennis; Sid Watkins; Jackie Stewart; Frank Williams; Ayrton Senna; Neide Senna; Galv√£o Bueno; Viviane Senna
Directed by:
Asif Kapadia
On the web:
Senna Official Site

'Be careful, you've still got too much to do," Sid Watkins, a doctor, cautions Ayrton Senna, the Formula One champion, after he walks away from a nasty crash at a Grand Prix meet.

Those words, sadly, were prophetic.

In Senna, the riveting sports doc about the 1980s and '90s Brazilian race-car star, the trajectory from kid in a go-kart to national hero and international phenomenon is mapped out lap by lap, challenge by challenge. Senna is earnest, eloquent, and impossibly charismatic, and his rocketing ascension through the ranks of professional drivers - gunning his car at more than 200 m.p.h. down the straightaways - is something to behold.

And with a POV camera mounted in his cockpit for many of the Grand Prix matches, it is something to behold. Senna, sharply directed by Asif Kapadia, is a thrilling study of high-speed, high-stakes competition, and of a man whose love for the sport often put him at odds with the rules and regulations of its governing body. Passion vs. politics is Senna's underlying theme.

Born into a wealthy Brazilian family, Senna took off for Europe in his late teens to compete in karting championships - no cash prizes, just a lot of fast, furious driving in zooming minicars. He emerged as one of the karting world's top racers and was recruited by Toleman's Formula One team.

Motor-sport fans and journalists first took note of the young Brazilian in 1984, when, on a rain-slicked Monaco Grand Prix track, he moved up from 13th position to second - closing in on first-place Frenchman Alain Prost before the race was called because of weather conditions.

Or, the film suggests, the race was called because this unknown upstart was closing in on the sport's established star. That contest marks the beginning of a stormy rivalry between Senna and Prost, who, for a time, were teammates (recalling the awkward and antagonistic alliance between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour de France).

Senna makes the case that Jean-Marie Balestre, head of the sport's governing body, was allied with his fellow countryman, and made life, and the Grand Prix meets, difficult for the challenger from São Paulo.

In the documentary, Senna talks about the feeling he experienced racing - of losing himself inside the machine. Like many sports stars (and rock stars, too), he talks about his relationship with God. He also had relationships with a number of beautiful women - including a Brazilian TV-show hostess he boldly (and still charmingly) propositions on the air.

Exhilarating and tragic, this documentary about one of the all-time greats of motor racing is well worth checking out - even if motor racing is something you've heretofore paid zero attention to.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at


Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
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