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Senna (12A)

The career of a folk hero is reconstructed from archive footage.

Senna (12A)
dir: Asif Kapadia

To say Ayrton Senna was driven would be more than just a weak pun. His motivation for being an attentive student, his mother said, was to give himself more time to practise go-karting after school. In Monaco in 1984 (his first year in Formula One), he demonstrated his notorious agility in the rain but lost the race on a technicality. The following year, he lapped every car but one at the Portuguese Grand Prix. A commentator in the documentary Senna remarks on his intellect, which is emphatically the right word. Senna identified spaces on the track and insinuated himself into them with a dexterity that his reputation for mid-race argy-bargying could sometimes obscure.

Shunting took place off the track, too. Early on, we hear Senna's reminiscences about his youthful success in go-karting, an industry that he saw as free from the corruption of "politics and money". The implication is that those forces contributed to his death. Politics and money didn't kill him exactly, but they were behind the things that did.

This idea gives Senna the air of a conspiracy thriller crossed with a remake of Amadeus, with the younger driver in the Mozart role, and his McLaren team-mate and rival Alain Prost as Salieri. There is enough evidence that Prost tried wherever possible to impede his colleague's chances (for example, signing to the pioneering Williams team on the proviso that Senna would not also be recruited), but the picture contrives some more just to be sure that we know whom to boo - such as the cut from Prost in the embrace of Jean-Marie Balestre, head of F1's governing body, to a shot of Senna looking dejected. The clincher, when it comes to destroying an audience's sympathy for Prost, arrives in an excerpt of the driver verbally undressing Selina Scott. That, and his worrying resemblance to Rod Hull.

Meanwhile, Senna remains the subject of unadulterated worship, as one might expect from a film made with the co-operation of the driver's family and the Ayrton Senna In­stitute. He is, however, a beautiful anomaly.

Post-victory interviews contained statements such as "God gave me this race" or "I just feel peace". He very much "did" God. Senna insisted that he was merely an instrument of the Lord, albeit one dressed as an enormous cigarette carton. Both those factors - religious faith and tobacco sponsorship, flaunted with equal abandon - are as indicative of The Past as the fuzzy, faded archive footage from which Senna is constructed.

This allows for some period novelties, including home movies of the Senna clan on their yacht in an apparent dry-run for Duran Duran's "Rio" video, or a Brazilian Christmas TV special that makes Noel's House Party look like Krapp's Last Tape. But Senna never comes close to losing his dignity, not even when wearing Speedos. His ingenuous chestnut eyes and freckled face give him a zestiness that fades visibly only once his career and popularity escalate, without his influence on F1 following suit.

Asif Kapadia, who has specialised in folk tales (The Warrior; Far North), is an unexpected choice of director, even allowing for Senna's status as a mythical hero to his poverty-stricken compatriots. But Kapadia brings an unusual texture to the movie by ensuring that interviewees are heard but not seen, and by denying us any objective narration. Combined with VHS images that keep splintering into crackling static, as though the master tapes had been driven over at the Circuit de Monaco, this creates a tension between the immediacy of the storytelling and the transparent fallibility of the footage.

The film also has one unusual resource at its disposal: the in-car F1 camera footage that allows us to peer over Senna's shoulder as he devours the road. This gives us access to the normally composed driver roaring ecstatically in a most un-Senna-like fashion as he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix ("I don't believe it! Fucking hell! I've won!"). Kapadia is careful to cut away from the in-car material seconds before Senna's death in San Marino in 1994, but its use in that instant still left me uneasy. That we can't avoid being Cassandras in a film like this is no reason to make us ride shotgun in a high-speed hearse.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?