Review of Senna, Directed by Asif Kapadia
By CHRISTIAN HAMAKER
As a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, I’m honored to take part in the group’s year-end awards vote. Between my regular assignments as a film critic for Crosswalk.com, I try to squeeze in as many films as I can in order to be well informed come award voting time. Even then, films can fall through the cracks. Senna, the story of Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, who died tragically on the racetrack, is one such film. I wasn’t sent a copy of the film during last year’s awards voting, and only recently had a chance to watch this highly acclaimed movie on DVD.
Afterward, I came to the conclusion that Senna is not only the best documentary of last year, but one of the best films of 2011 period. It will appeal to people interested in Formula One racing, but also—and perhaps especially—to those of us interested in the religious lives of public figures. Senna’s Christian faith was integral to his life and career, and his devotion to God is presented as constant, even fervent, right up until the moments of his demise.
The film, directed by Asif Kapadia, mixes footage of Senna’s racing career with home movies of Senna’s childhood and interviews/reminiscences of the man by family and fellow racers.
The religious note is presented in the film’s early moments, when Senna’s mom says, “May God always protect him from all the danger he may face—that’s my greatest fear. I want to thank him for being such a great son.”
Her son finds success early, graduating from kart racing to Formula One and leaving Brazil for Europe. His evolution is presented as natural and expected by those who watched his ascent, but Senna himself points to a higher Source for his gifts and abilities. At his first Formula One race, he says, “I think God gave me this chance, which I’ve been waiting for so long. And now He is helping me to stay calm, relaxed—tranquil.”
His faith is tested when his rise to the top of the Formula One field is hindered by a system Senna believes is rigged. “Formula One is political—it is money, and when you are still small you have to go through this,” a resigned Senna says after a tough loss. But the racer is determined to be the very best at his chosen career and to overcome obstacles through talent and determination. “When you are competing, you either do well or forget it,” he said.
He presses on to the mark he seeks: to be the best racer in his field. He perseveres and says he’s become “closer to God, and that has been very important for me as a man.” He remembers, on the cusp of winning a major championship, “I started being thankful as I was doing the last lap. I thanked God. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to win the championship. … I felt his presence. I visualized—I saw God.”
But there are danger signs that Senna may be too aggressive in his pursuit of racing greatness, and that he may think he’s invincible. One interviewee in the documentary says, “He thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God.”
Yet Senna’s desire is to bring glory to God for his victories. “I needed to finish first because He is greater than everyone, and He gave me this race,” Senna says after one major win. “God gave me this race and I am very happy.”
As his profile rises, so do requests for charitable help. According to Senna’s sister, he became so well-known that many sought his help. But his charitable efforts and career were cut short when Senna’s life ended on the race track. The film builds to this event with a sense of the inevitable, but that foreboding is tempered by a sense that the racer’s death was part of God’s plan. Before his final race, a woman recounts, “He asked God to talk to him. He opened the Bible and read a passage that said God would give him the greatest of all gifts, which was God himself.”
The film then shows us much of that final race from a camera inside Senna’s car, cutting to an outside view of the car seconds before it crashes, taking the racer’s life.
As we watch footage of a crew rushing to the wrecked vehicle, we hear from one of those who attended to Senna at that moment. He knew right away the injury was fatal. “He sighed and that was the moment—and I’m not religious—that his spirit had departed.” Senna had “run out of luck,” even though, as he expired, he had “no broken bones, not a bruise on his body.”
The film doesn’t try to paint Senna as a new Savior, but it allows its interview subjects to suggest several times that God raised Senna to the greatest height of his profession, and then took him to be with Him. Those looking for doctrinal details about Senna’s faith won’t find them in this film, but they’ll get an unmistakable sense that the man was a Christian devoted to his Maker, and that he recognized that he owed his success to God. That makes Senna a great viewing experience.