SENNA (Asif Kapadia; UK; 2010)
I am gloriously chuffed that this film has attained the positive critical and audience-based response it has, considering it wears its grainy, shaky archival-footage completely on its sleeve. I find it fascinating that the film has been attracting the “you don’t have to like motor racing to find this film compelling” plaudits, as it helps to provide some perspective on my own thorough enjoyment of this film. Y’see, I do like motor racing, (or at least I used to – year by year I find F1 in particular to be increasingly bland), and prior to this documentary have always found the subject of Ayrton Senna’s ability and personality to be somewhat fascinating, a driver who seemed to be traversing a higher realm than any of his colleagues both on and off the racing track. So, even if this film ended up being just a simple primer on his life and death, I would have perhaps gleaned some level of appreciation of this film. But what the director has done, and what the acclaim attests to, is to not merely rest on the laurels of presenting a synopsis of an extraordinary life but to sculpt and shape a riveting story from the pre-existing recorded fragments of his life.
The key to this film is the creation of a great story through intricate and masterly editing. A wonderful narrative arc is carved purely from archival footage and the voices of interviewees, starting with the brash and rapid ascendancy of a young star happy to be successful in a sport he loves, moving to his first hurdle via an incrementally bitter rivalry, peppered with the rewards of success and a growing sense of self-assurance, and steadily moving into quiet frustration with the changes in the sport (moving more to a kind of technology that largely eschews driver talent in favour of formidably unbeatable machinery), and then pensively and melancholically into furrowed foreshadowings of his own demise. This is where Kapadia utterly excels in creating a masterful film, purely from editing – as the film progresses, and Senna suffers both the frustrations of changing technologies and the concerns regarding safety on the track, we see more and more often a pensive Senna, a man trying to rub tension and worry out of his eyes, staring into the distance, lost inside his own thoughts.
And it’s here, in these moments as well, that another key to the film’s success lies. The director often selects footage of Senna in a reflective mode, the camera closing in on his face, honing in on him and lingering upon his face, capturing us in Senna’s world of quiet emotions. With precise and well-timed guidance from the voices of interviewees, we are compelled to read Senna’s thoughts and feelings. The accumulative use of carefully selected footage creates something akin to an actor’s performance from Senna’s gestures, smiles, facial expressions, body language. Hungarian film theorist Bela Balazs referred to the power of the close-up in cinema, with the ‘silent soliloquy’ of the face providing an unspoken revelation of a character’s inner state of mind. Senna exemplifies the richness evoked from deep concentration on the physiognomy of a person’s face. There is no close-up that I have recently seen that bests the silent appraisal of Senna’s face as he sits in the cockpit of his car, waiting to start what would be his final race. For a mere ten seconds we see a face that appears to register a swathe of silent emotions – sadness at the loss of a fellow driver the day before, frustration with the recent performance of his car, a melancholic half-smile showing a desperate attempt to latch on to some kind of social normalcy, and an intense pensiveness that seems to exude the impression that Senna was aware of some impending, pre-ordained tragedy.