' ' Cinema Romantico: Senna

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." - Steve Prefontaine

Athletes are always thanking God. They want to give up it for God and re-explain that nothing is possible without God and remind everyone that without God they wouldn't be where they are, etc. How often we do we roll our eyes at these sentiments? Often. Who knows how real this is or, if it is real, how much they even truly mean it? Is it really just empty spiritual rhetoric? After all, as the eternal refrain goes (which eternally makes me roll my eyes), does God really care about a sporting event? Never, though, have I heard an athlete say that while in the midst of his chosen athletic endeavor, he saw God. That's a whole different ballgame. That's what Ayrton Senna, the triple world champion in Formula One auto racing who dominated his sport in the late 80's-mid-90's, said of a particular grand prix. And to look at Senna say it, the calm, effacing manner offset by the piercing eyes, is to be unable to deny what he says. Did he see Him, didn't he, not the point, he knows he did, and that's all that matters.

I know less than next to nothing about Formula One and it turned out to be irrelevant, not because Asif Kapadia's film presents extensive insight into the finer points of the racing circuit, because it doesn't, but because he turns this sporting documentary into something universal and, even more so, spiritual. He eschews the standard format of endless talking heads by creating a film comprised entirely of archival footage of Senna's races and interviews mixed with the voices of interviewees in the present day whose faces always remain off camera. This bold, smart decision makes the film come across intensely immediate, not something of the grainy past but something happening right now.

It brings us up through Senna's youthful days on the go-kart circuit which he fondly remembers as a place where the racing was pure before his eventual, inevitable move to Formula One, where the racing is faster but the political gamesmanship is unchecked and loyalty is purchased. He finds at first a friend, sort of, in the reigning Big Man On Formula One Campus, Alain Prost, who starts out as a teammate but quickly becomes a rival. The particulars of the rivalry get deeper and nastier as the film progresses and if the film seems to be less than even-handed, landing squarely on Senna's side, well, it has to because this film, as established, is the life of Senna, not of Prost, not of some omniscient narrator reciting the facts of the case. The film essentially sidesteps his personal and private life, though I don't think this was on account of carelessness by the filmmaker or because the material failed to fit but because this is a film solely about Senna's, if you will, place of worship.

Eventually the cars themselves become an issue which leads directly into the astounding, excruciating third act and the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix that would take Senna's life. The audience knows from the get-go that this is how it must end but the explicit details of the end, the various wrecks of other cars, the death of another driver in qualifying, take it to a place for which words only seem feeble because what he says and the way he looks both leading up to the race and in the car just before he takes the track suggest we are witnessing a man literally having a premonition. And if this is the case, why? Why did he get behind the wheel? Why did he take to the track in that flimsy vehicle? I think because he felt that to give anything less than his best would have been to sacrifice his gift.

And that's why throughout I couldn't stop thinking of late American long distance runner Steve Prefontaine and how much he compared to the otherwise incomparable Senna. Both men were consumed not just by a desire to win but a desire to win on their terms and nothing but their terms, to hold themselves to a higher standard than merely defeating the competition. Both men were simultaneously thoughtful and hot-blooded. Both men railed against the political injustices rampant in their respective sports. Both men perished in a car crash without, almost unfathomably, breaking a single bone in their bodies, as if they were both too strong for this puny world and, yet, as if whatever it is out there in the Great Beyond had decided their time in this world was up nonetheless.

Both men could be called athletes, but I think it would be more appropriate to categorize them both as artists.


Castor said...

I'd like to see someone write a really negative review of Senna. Surely, there must be one person who didn't LOVE this movie! :) Highly looking forward to this on DVD, I just don't really feel like driving down to the indie theater lately.

Nick Prigge said...

Did you read Ebert's? It wasn't a horrible review but it wasn't as glowing as most. I was kind of surprised by that actually. For me, clearly, it lived up to the hype.

This guy's story is just.....it's really almost unbelievable, really eerie how perfectly it all fits into a narrative.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Ebert's review of Senna is baffling. But then he's only human. Unlike Senna, who was definitely a gift from above. A big statement, especially coming from me, an Atheist.

He was an artist. Things that aren't an art become an art when there's someone to show us how. Seen Lionel Messi play football? (Soccer if you're a weirdo). He makes it art. Just like Tupac made an art of a genre that everyone thought was just swearing.

Senna: Special Man. Special Movie.

Great post!

Nick Prigge said...

Love that you say that about Tupac. Couldn't agree more. He sounded like a poet, he wrote like a poet, he was a poet. (Even if he probably would've scared me way more than half to death if I'd met him in real life.)

Anonymous said...

Ha..ha.. Castor's comment made me laugh, but I haven't read a single bad review either. I'm looking forward to this as well. As a Christian, I appreciate someone who wears his faith on his sleeve like Senna did. Like you said, we never know whether he really 'saw' God or not but the point is he believed and he wasn't apologetic about it. I think it's great that this film is so much more than about Formula 1. Can't wait to see this one.

Nick Prigge said...

It will be worth the wait whenever you get to it. It's got Best Oscar Doc written all over it.