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Sundance 2011: Tears and thrills from the Formula One track in 'Senna'

January 22, 2011 | 10:30 am

Sometimes a documentary will unexpectedly reach out and grab you by the throat, not giving you a second to breathe. That's that way it was with "Senna," which had its North American premiere Friday night in Sundance's world documentary competition.

Fans of Formula One racing will know at once that this is a film about the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, considered by some to be the greatest driver who ever lived. A boy genius behind the wheel, capable of pushing cars beyond their capacity, Senna won 33 races and three Grand Prix titles before dying in a crash in 1994 at age 34.

Told solely through the use of archival footage, "Senna" is bursting with great racing sequences, many dealing with his bitter rivalry with French champion Alain Prost. But what makes this film so riveting is the remarkable personality of the man himself.

Someone who just flat-out loved to drive, Senna was a purist who had complete disdain for the politics that had to be played in the cliquish Formula One world. Though he drove like the devil, he was a spiritual person who believed deeply and profoundly in a higher power. A philosophical mystic with a jewel thief's nerves and a poet's sensitivity (and good looks), Senna was an altogether remarkable human being.

"Senna" is fortunate in having Asif Kapadia, best known for his award-winning dramatic debut, "The Warrior," in charge. A British director with a keen sense of drama and a gift for narrative drive, Kapadia also had, said screenwriter and executive producer Manish Pandey, the kind of impeccable eye needed to cull 104 minutes of film from 15,000 hours of archival footage.

Though everything about "Senna" took forever -- years to get the cooperation of both the Senna family and the Formula One hierarchy, further years to do the archival research and then to edit -- the result has been extraordinarily satisfying to the team that spearheaded the work.

Pandey talked about showing the film to Ron Dennis, the head of the McLaren racing team, a man known for being unemotional and so conscious of not wasting a minute of time that he has a car and driver waiting for him everywhere he goes.

"After the film ended, Ron Dennis cried for 10 minutes," Pandey said. "Then he sat and talked about Senna for two hours." Such is the power of this man, and this film. 

-- Kenneth Turan

Photo: Ayrton Senna in the driver's seat in a scene from "Senna." Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Comments () | Archives (58)

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I would add that Ron was the chief of Mclaren where Senna won his 3 titles.

I must correct you on one point - Ayrton Senna won 41 Grand Prix, not 33. He also had 65 pole positions.

I very much look forward to see this film. He was so good that it didn't seem possible he could actually die in a racing accident. Turns out it wasn't his driving but I won't spoil it for those wanting to see this film.

Best reason to wake up early sundays in my 30s. Thre was sure a show to enjoy. That man was able to make all Brazilians happy at once.

Thank you Senna, for everything.
Alexandre .

2nd paragraph note:

Senna had 41 wins, not 33.

Senna won 41 races and 65 pole position a record that took schumacher 13 years withaout senna to break

Wow. I can't wait to see this film, it looks incredible.

Umm, senna won 41 races

Wow, Congrats to Kapadia and Pandey! Can't wait to see this amazing film. Hope you guys can bring it to Austin for SXSW in March...

He was such an icon...

Curious about the film footage for this movie since there have been two rather popular videos released years ago; `RACING IS IN MY BLOOD` and an earlier McLaren video that was based primarily on his employment with McLaren.

Hopefully this new movie uses fresh never before seen material.

Other than the screenings at Sundance, I have heard nothing regarding a U.S. or Canadian release date for this movie. Is there one?

Or, will I have to travel to London or Sao Paulo to see "Senna"?

And yes, he won 41 Grand Prix races, not 33.

What a beautiful human being he was.
Missed by millions.

senna won 41 races..not 33!

I was in Sao Paulo yesterday and made time to see this film at the Art Cinema off Paulista Ave. It was simply magnificent! I have never been moved so much by a documentary. Senna's calm demeanor and clarity of purpose really shine though in this footage. Most people in the theater were openly weeping for the last 10 minutes. This movie will make tough guys cry like little boys and ponder the meaning of life like priests.

The man was a gift. The superior talents of a Tiger Woods or a Tony Hawk, only moreso. Little known until he was gone: Without asking for recognition, his family learned that he had quietly been giving much of his fortune to Brazilian disadvantaged children's charities.

It was amazing. The best documentary I have ever seen.

Ayrton. You heard me scream out your name at the grand prix in Montreal in 1993 and you turned to wave at us. I knew you could not see me in the crowd, but just knowing that my voice met your ears and impacted your moment in time is the closest I have felt to God's angel on earth. I somehow knew in my heart but I did not share wife my wife, that you would not last long on this earth. The light that burns twice as bright always seems to last half as long. You are so very much missed by tgis earth.

Any US release dates? So many fans eager to see this film!

When can the rest of us see it? I was a Prost fan, but cried like a little girl that fateful May 1st, 1994... It was my 19th birthday, and it remains my worst birthday... :-(

Im brazilian and I understand perfectly what Senna represented and REPRESENTS for us and for the rest of the world not just like a pilot but mainly like a HUMAN BEING ,so hard to find nowadays.

He still can he make me shed a tear after this length of time - a showing in Toronto, Canada would be great - however, when can I order the DVD?

Would love to see the film make it to the lowcountry for all to see.

Please bring the Senna movie to the Dallas area ASAP

Senna was an extremely driven and riveting character. So pleased to hear those envolved in making this film were driven as well. Can't wait to see the results!

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