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 at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. Overcast with foreboding, 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 also are home movies of Senna, often traversing the waterways of Brazil, usually accompanied by a passel of women. The footage is silent, the private man left inscrutable.
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. 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. Even nonbelievers in Senna's sport and church will find it difficult to visit Kapadia's cinematic shrine without emotion. —Nick Pinkerton (Landmark)