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'Senna' opening brings Formula One story, and hero, to U.S.

August 12, 2011 |  3:04 pm


This post has been corrected. See below for details.

Ali. Pele. Jordan. Quiz most Americans about the most compelling single-monikered sports champions of the 20th century and you'll get a reliable set of responses. But Senna?

Even hard-core U.S. sports fans probably have little notion of Ayrton Senna da Silva, a Brazilian Formula One race car driver who rose to prominence in the 1980s and came to be regarded as the best driver of all time. But as Asif Kapadia’s new documentary “Senna,” currently playing at the Landmark Theatre, makes clear, we should probably clear some space in our sports pantheon for him.

Charismatic and complicated, droll and intense (and with an unexpected religious side), Senna cemented his legend by winning the Formula One season title three times. His mystique was deepened by his rivalry with Alain Prost, a cagey French driver who, as the film shows, was prone to manipulating the Formula One establishment to get the better of his nemesis.

Capping off the drama: Senna died on the track, suffering a fatal head injury in 1994, at 34, while leading the field at the San Marino Grand Prix.

The athlete, who with his on-course success and movie-star looks achieved fame of folk-hero proportions in his native country, was particularly known for his frank approach toward the über-political Formula One leadership. In one telling and humorous scene from archival footage, we see Senna, at a meeting with fellow drivers, questioning the head of the sport’s governing body over a safety issue, then sauntering out of the room when they begin giving him the runaround.

If his stance seemed fresh in the early 1990s, it comes off as iconoclastic in today’s world of celebrity athletes, where images are tightly managed.

“I think what’s most amazing about Senna is that he’s an athlete who wasn’t faking it,” said Kapadia, a Brit who was known until now for directing scripted features such as the Sarah Michelle Gellar thriller “The Return.” “Everything he said — whether it was funny or irate or anything else — came from a very honest place, and that just made him hugely likable.”

Formula One, wildly popular in Europe, South America and Asia but not in the United States, typically involves custom-built cars racing around urban courses at speeds that can top 180 miles per hour. Races are held around the world from March to November. Drivers usually compete as part of a team, with McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull currently among the top in the sport.

Perhaps the most striking element of Kapadia’s film — whose dialogue is in English, Portuguese and French and which has earned critical raves since premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — is that it tells its story without any narration. There is no voice-over and not a single talking head — the entire 104 minutes is composed of cleverly edited archival footage. The result is a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a sport’s culture and personalities.

Kapadia said he didn’t set out to make the movie that way. He and his writing collaborator, Formula One expert Manish Pandey, initially intended to make a conventional documentary. But as they began sifting through hundreds of hours of footage on YouTube, they realized they had all they needed to tell the story in the material itself. “We thought ‘All these people who knew Senna have been interviewed dozens of times. What could we get them to say that they haven’t said before?’” Kapadia said of the filmmaking process, which took several years.

Kapadia did have an advantage: Because of Senna’s popularity, film crews from around the world followed his every move — providing reams of footage for the documentary’s team. “I think Asif realized he pretty much had as many camera angles as he would if he was shooting a studio feature,” said Dana O’Keefe, an executive at the New York-based distributor Producers Distribution Agency.

“Senna” rides into the U.S. on a significant wave of international buzz and strong box office receipts; in the United Kingdom, for instance, it became the third-highest grossing documentary of all time after being released in June, behind only “Fahrenheit 911” and “March of the Penguins.” But Producers Distribution Agency — a boutique outfit that last year distributed “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about street artist Banksy — has its work cut out for it, what with Formula One’s anemic following in America.

To prime the pump, the distributor screened the film dozens of times to constituencies that included auto enthusiasts and women’s groups (the company is hoping to capitalize on the movie’s resonance and its subject’s popularity with women), on the belief that if viewers could experience the emotional impact of the film, particularly its tragic on-track ending, they’d be hooked.

“I couldn’t care less about motorsports, I’d never heard of Ayrton Senna and I never would have considered seeing this movie from the description, and I think a lot of people are in the same boat,” said John Sloss, the head of PDA. “But it’s incredible just how many people respond to it once they see it.”

Formula One is also experiencing a moment in this country, albeit a small one. The first Grand Prix race on U.S. soil in five years will be held next year in Austin, Texas. [Corrected, Saturday 10:34 am: An earlier version of this post said that it would be the first race in the U.S. in three decades.] And Ron Howard is preparing to direct a scripted feature about a different Formula One rivalry, between the 1970s champions Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

But Kapadia has a more direct reason why he believes an American audience will spark to it. “It is,” he said, “just a great story of a rivalry.”


Senna brings back intriguing personal memories

Tears and thrills from the Formula One racetrack

'Senna' is a moving tribute to a great Formula One driver

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo. Ayrton Senna da Silva's life is chronicled in "Senna." Credit: PDA