Formula One motor-racing is a bit like soccer -- a lot more popular in other countries. Yet no viewer need be a fan of the sport, nor have any foreknowledge, to be captivated by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia's documentary about one of F1's greatest stars, Ayrton Senna. The handsome, charismatic Brazilian dominated the track in the late 1980s and early '90s, before dying in a horrific crash at a 1994 race.
Senna tracks the young driver through early success; his on- and off-track troubles with his rival (and sometimes teammate) Alain Prost; his disputes with F1 officials; and his commitment to bettering his then-troubled homeland, where he was a national hero.
The film is admittedly a bit hagiographic, but Kapadia still produces an exciting sports story, as well as an emotionally compelling character study of one of F1's less-likely superstars. Senna could be both focused and childishly temperamental; he was deeply religious yet struggled to balance his faith with the personal costs of fame and intense competitiveness.
Kapadia's film relies strictly on archival footage, supplemented by contemporary voice-overs from family and colleagues. Much of the footage is remarkably intimate -- from F1 drivers' meetings and in-car cameras that let us ride along on Senna's final laps, to home video of Senna relaxing with his family -- and it simply tells its own story. (While it's more amusing than irritating, some of the 1980s race footage is presumably on loan from a packaged program and is accompanied by some awesomely cheesy music.)
The research and editing Kapadia has done is impressive, creating an exhilarating and moving portrait. Even a segment that in another context would be unremarkable, such as Senna lifting a victory trophy after a particularly tough race, becomes revelatory in Senna's meticulously constructed profile. The last reel of the film, which recounts Senna's final race -- an event marked by several mishaps and tragedies -- exemplifies Kapadia's technique, creating a gripping narrative out of available footage. We are all over -- in the pits, the air above the track and the press office, and with the crowd. But most compellingly, we are both inside Senna's head, knowing he must race, and outside the film, dreading the known outcome. In English, and Portuguese and other languages, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Sept. 30. Regent Square