Friday, October 7, 2011

A Lavish Essential: Senna (2010)

I admit it.  Before last night, I knew little about Formula 1 racing and even less than that about Aryton Senna, the Brazilian superstar driver, who blazed onto the racing scene and into the hearts of the Brazilian people in 1984. And frankly, I didn't think I wanted to know anything about Formula 1 or about the drivers in that world. 

But the wonderful thing about filmmaking at its best is that it has the power to usher you, your mind and tingling senses, into unfamiliar worlds; it can introduce you to people, to places, to cultures you would never otherwise encounter.  And it has been through great films that my life has thus been enriched in the most unexpected ways.

Senna, a new documentary directed by Asif Kapadia and detailing the career of Formula 1 racer Aryton Senna, is just such a film.  Knowing relatively nothing of Formula 1 racing didn't matter, for from the opening moments of the film, I was swept headlong into the excitement, speed, daring - and yes, joy - of the sport.  And, more significantly perhaps, I fell in love with this driver, this Senna.  His love for the sport, his drive, his ambition, his endearingly expressive face and body, immediately caught me up into that racing world I had previously cared to know nothing about.  

The film is extraordinary as a documentary.  Unlike so many films in that category, there are no talking heads, no people telling me what to think and how to feel about the sport, about Senna himself: Senna depends exclusively upon archival footage, television footage and some footage from Senna's family's home videos.  The effect of the dependence upon the archives is that the film avoids nostalgia and builds, instead, real heart and warmth, solely derived from the scenes playing out before me.  And while all films using archival footage are edited and pieced together for a particular impact and story, I never felt that I was being manipulated into feeling something; I felt I could make my own conclusions about this man and about this sport.  

Also unique to this documentary is the sensory experience it offered me in theater.  Many documentaries don't need a big screen viewing.  This one was simply wonderful on the big screen.  With its footage from cameras situated right inside Senna's car, I, as a viewer, sat right inside the terrifying and exhilarating speed and movement of the race.

I purposefully did not read about Senna before seeing the film, so while I knew, intuitively, how the film would end, I did not know the exact circumstances, and for that last half hour of the film (a beautifully paced half hour), I was on the edge of my seat, filled with dread and terrible anticipation.  The end, when it came, was moving and cathartic in a way I'd never have anticipated a film about racing would be for me, and the very last piece of footage, without giving it away,  was, quite simply, perfect, delivered to me in beautiful closure, a tribute to Senna and to his deep love for racing.

Ultimately, the film captures the way Senna himself captured racing fans' hearts and it lovingly depicts the intense adoration the otherwise impoverished and despairing people of Brazil had for the man, their national hero.  There' s a kind of glorious extravagance in the way that a people can so embrace a man and his incredible skill in a sport, even when they themselves are living in such terrible circumstances.  

Their love, I think, reflects the need we have as humans to hold onto something beyond the day to day necessities of living and grubbing, to find sheer joy in something that is an end in itself, something that benefits us only on the emotional or spiritual or aesthetic level.  Senna reminded me that our sport, our play, the deep investment and love we can put into these things is anything but trivial; it fulfills a deeply human need to lavish love on something that does not seem necessary, that does not feed or clothe our bodies; it feeds something much less definable but just as essential. 

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