MOVIECUBE — OCTOBER 2013 — DOCUMENTARY
There was something rather ominous at the third race of the Formula One 1994 season in Imola, Italy. Two days before the big day, during the first qualifying round, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello’s car hit the fence, went flying and somersaulted in the air, yet miraculously only left Barrichello with a broken nose and arm. When he awakened hours later, Ayrton Senna was the first person he saw. The next day, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger’s car hit the concrete wall, and this time no life was spared. Abandoning some regulations, Senna hopped on inside an official car and rushed to the accident site. He had to see it. Medical Chief Professor Sid Watkins, a good friend of Senna’s, saw the shocked Senna and suggested to him that they both quit the race, retire, and just go fishing. Senna just replied, “Sid, I can’t quit.”
It’s Sunday, race day. A devout Catholic, Senna consulted the Bible in the morning, asking God to talk to him. He came upon a passage that said God would give him the greatest of all gifts, which was God himself. He then spent the rest of his morning with former teammate and nemesis Alain Prost, discussing about re-establishing the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, with the hope of making the sports safer. The race started and Senna was inside the Williams FW16, a car which he had been having troubles with for the last few days. And then on lap 7, the car hit the concrete wall at 233 km/h, the right front wheel and suspension flew back to his direction and hit him in the head. Professor Watkins saw his neurological signs, and knew it. Senna was 34.
Senna wholeheartedly placed his belief and life in his God, turning to his faith whenever he needed guidance, thanking his God whenever he achieved something. And Senna himself was something quite close to a God back in his home, Brazil. In a country stricken with poverty and criminality, Senna was their God, their joy, their one savior. “The only good thing in Brazil,” an admirer said. When his body was returned to São Paulo, three million people went down to the streets, bidding their goodbyes. Grief clouded the whole country, and the government declared three days of national mourning.
When you had lived a life as celebrated as Senna’s, it’s inevitable to be seen as something larger than life. Like James Dean a few decades before him, Senna reached a sort of spiritual, mythical status. And indeed there’s something rather mysterious about the man, especially on that tragically fateful weekend. He was worried the whole time, restless, probably more than usual, he sought the words of God and received a rather foreboding answer. Did he know?
All the mystery aside, we understand that he’s not as above-it-all as his fame suggests. He came from a privileged background, his family was wealthy enough to back their son’s gift up with go-karting at an early age. But he turned out to be as much of a purist as racers come, he was in it for the race, and that was it. He was not good with the politics, he was not blinded by the money—probably because he had always had it in the first place—but unfortunately, Formula One is all about money and politics. The game could frustrate him sometimes but he stuck around, because it was everything to him, it was his life, at least for a few years to come. He knew racing wasn’t all there was to him, but for that time being, it was. When asked who was the racer that he had the most satisfaction racing against, he answered Fullerton, his teammate back when he first go-karted outside Brazil in 1978. Not only because he was good, but because there was neither money nor politics involved at that time. It was pure racing.
The filmmakers don’t touch on many subjects in the film and focus more on Senna’s rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, and his spirituality—which I guess was worthy of a highlight considering how highly Senna regarded it in his life. Since Senna passed away in 1994, all the footages used in the movie are all between around 1978-1994 and despite the abundance of archive videos of Senna, it couldn’t have been easy to construct a full film based on existing footages only. There are new interviews from a few important individuals in Senna’s career but all in the form of voice only, and I thought that works very well, keeping us strictly inside the period and not beyond. Yet of course Senna’s legacy continues beyond, and we feel that. There are many things that the filmmakers could have showed us, many details we are eager to see—maybe Senna’s love life, maybe more of his philanthropic work. Sadly the film lacks those. However, Senna is still a wonderful documentary, a fitting tribute to the beloved immortal figure of Ayrton Senna.