One of the biggest names in Formula 1 racing, Ayrton Senna was 34 years old when a well-placed blow from a suspension shaft ended his life on Tamburello curve at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy.
Overcast with foreboding even for the theoretical viewer who doesn't already know Senna's fate, Asif Kapadia's expertly orchestrated documentary-biography condenses the breakneck decade leading up to its subject's apotheosis on May 1, 1994, beginning with Senna's arrival in Europe after a karting career in his native Brazil.
Senna's life story is told through his races, including three World Championship wins in down-to-the-wire seasons. The journey is relived through a synthesis of broadcast footage, onboard camera feed and omnipotent backstage camcorder recordings — one extraordinary moment shows Senna, one day away from his own finish line, witnessing Roland Ratzenberger's fatal crash during a San Marino qualifying lap.
There are also home movies of Senna — jug-eared with a winning smile and handsome, like a Pasolini actor — often traversing the waterways of Brazil and usually accompanied by a passel of women. The footage is silent; the private man is left inscrutable, his public life defined by narration from off-screen relatives, competitors and commentators. Senna appears also in his own words in candid interviews, talking about his favorite subjects: his faith in God and his skepticism toward the politics of F1 racing. Both provide the structure for Kapadia's film.
Fearless when jockeying for position on the track, Senna vocally disdained the F1 world's backroom political maneuvering. Fellow driver and archrival Alain "The Professor" Prost is depicted, in contrast, as the ultimate insider, backed by his countryman and head of the sport's governing body, Jean-Marie Balestre, a caricature of French chauvinism. (Kapadia has a tendency to increase Senna's stature by diminishing his rivals'.) It is implicit that, as much as anything, Senna's anti-authority streak endeared him to the disenfranchised back home — a folk-heroic status that reaches an emotional crescendo when Senna wins the Brazil Grand Prix with his car stuck in sixth gear, a physical effort so great that his fingers must be pried from the wheel.
The Brazil win epitomizes Scripture's suffering-with-joy; earlier, Senna claims to have encountered God in his cockpit at the Suzuka Circuit. It is a cynical truism that professional athletes are divided between egomaniacs and religious zealots, but Kapadia treats Senna's conflation of Catholic fundamentalism and state-of-the-art speed respectfully, so much so that Senna approaches the feel of a religious artwork: The aura of a life lived in extremis, undergirded by faith, clings to the film. Even nonbelievers in Senna's sport and church will find it difficult to visit Kapadia's cinematic shrine without emotion.