Friday, September 23, 2016

Blood on the tracks

Given that Ayrton Senna died in 1994, it's amazing that it took until 2010 for his story to be made into a film - though not quite as amazing as the film in question, Asif Kapadia's Senna.

After all, the three-times Formula 1 World Champion's life had all of the elements of a classic Hollywood narrative: a fascinating character single-minded in the pursuit of success, engaged in intense and bitter struggle with a friend turned foe (Alain Prost), battling valiantly to overcome gross injustice (as a victim of both Prost's cynicism and the petty and partisan judgements of Prost's fellow Frenchman, FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre) and ultimately succumbing to a tragically premature death in front of thousands of spectators and a TV audience of millions.

In view of the subject matter, you might argue that it would be hard for Kapadia to have done a bad job - and he certainly didn't, exhibiting a masterful use of archive footage, interview segments, voiceover and music in illuminating the key moments in Senna's professional life.

Senna was - appropriately enough, given his chosen occupation - a very driven person, dissatisfied with the prospect of resting on his laurels and absolutely compelled to keep going, as though racing was vital to his sense of self-esteem and self-identity. Unlike many Brazilian footballers, he wasn't from an impoverished background (far from it) but was profoundly patriotic at a time when most of his countrymen felt ashamed rather than proud of their nationality, and helped to bring much-needed joy to the people and raise the profile of the country internationally. After his death, his sister Vivianne set up the Ayrton Senna Foundation, a charity that supports the education of poor Brazilian children - a tribute that Senna (unusually humble for a Formula 1 driver) would have appreciated.

Prost, meanwhile, was cast as the pantomime villain, a 1980s-permed gnome, a Machiavellian Leo Sayer who knew very well how to play the political game. When Senna first joined Prost's McLaren team, the pair enjoyed a healthy rivalry but, with Prost growing irritated by the Brazilian trespassing on his turf, the relationship descended into outright warfare. In many ways Prost was the victor, dragging Senna down to his level and the art of the tactical collision.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Prost objected to his depiction in the film, expressing particular irritation that the reconciliation between the pair that took place prior to Senna's death wasn't explicitly flagged up. However, scriptwriter Manish Pandey defended the film from that particular charge, pointing to numerous implicit indications that the pair's enmity was over by the time Senna suffered his fatal crash - not least Prost's presence at the funeral. In any case, anyone who regularly bad-mouthed the eponymous hero of a film is never likely to come out of it smelling of roses.

Despite the fact that Senna's ultimate fate is well known and casts a shadow over the whole film, imbuing everything with added resonance and poignancy, the inevitable conclusion nevertheless packs a powerful emotional punch. The strategy of flitting between footage of family and friends with Senna and shots of them in mourning at his funeral is simple but devastatingly effective.

I'm certainly no Formula 1 fan, and have been known to mock a former colleague who has an oil painting of Senna hanging over her mantelpiece - but when Kapadia's film finished I found myself suddenly inclined to get an easel, a canvas, a set of brushes and some paint and start creating my own tribute.

As for Kapadia, he went on to do Amy, which told the story of the troubled singer Amy Winehouse, another iconic figure who died prematurely. Supersonic, his new film about Oasis' rise to superstardom in the mid-1990s released next month, will buck the trend - unless you consider the death of Britpop tragic. Which I don't. Still probably worth a watch, though.

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