Saturday, November 5, 2011

Film Review: "Senna" (***1/2)

It's been a long month since the last time I went to the theater to really see anything, and sitting alone in a large auditorium is never the way you want it to be. You want there to be several people there, and you want to share an experience with them. Then again, I suppose that's what I get for heading out on a Sunday evening at an indie theater. But in so many ways, I feel it was appropriate for me to experience it on my own, with no outlying elements really distracting me. It was me and "Senna", and it was such a welcome break from the expected greatness I've received from films like "Drive" and "Meek's Cutoff". It was, in its own way, pure.

"Senna" is not a documentary about formula 1 racing, and in so many ways, it's not a documentary. The film takes on a rare forward approach to its subject, not jumping about like some frantic child anxious to know how it ends. Nor does it set things out into these neat piles of information, feeding each sequentially and on cue. It breaks the norm, but what makes it fly is its refusal to draw attention to the fact. If nothing else, the film is pleasantly organic, unfolding at a more than reasonable pace, neither feeling rushed or packed, despite the years compacted in the constraints of the film. And funny enough, that doesn't drive out the all-important seeds of emotion, conflict, personality, and resonance.

Following champion formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna through his career of racing, the film doesn't make a habit of jumping backwards and forwards through time, or crafting unbelievability from the typical talking heads format. There are voices of commentators, interviews, and such, but nothing ever taking focus from Ayrton. The film uses their voices, but denies them finite voice by refusing to show them onscreen. Neither does it carry you through his life on an impersonal level, always keeping you at level with him. You're not seeing his life. You are experiencing it as he does, with the shots of him in the vehicle cam jarring us onto him.

Beyond Ayrton, only one other character who is truly given prevalent voice in the film is Alain Prost, who for all intents and purposes is the antagonist of this story. If this were a narrative feature, he'd be the character nominated in Supp. Actor category. That's something that's so stellar about "Senna", is that it's beyond a documentary approach and transcending into a narrative strain. And it never falls into the same pitfalls of narrative cinema. It treads lightly on that line between the two structure, and thusly takes the benefits of both. Prost signifies the selfish interest of the sport, and the dissatisfying line of success.

And in contrast to that, "Senna" is the most unexpected of successes. With no real idea going in of what I was in for, I was shocked by how affected I was by the more spiritual elements of it. The film is very much an anomaly, placing heart and spirit in a place where it's not necessary or welcome, both in terms of content and structure. I never really thought I'd get such a strong template of the human spirit from a film about racing, let alone formula 1. Yet there's still this feeling of finality about it, and puts across this idea of a natural foresight. It doesn't feel abrupt or unexpected, as we so normally acquaint to death. When attached to a singular person, there's nothing unfinished about it.

This film really preaches this idea that everything has purpose to it, though not necessarily that everything happens for a reason. None of this comes across in a way that seems pretentious, which is very satisfying to see as spiritual messages usually become muddled in convolution. We see that happen so often, but it really works here. It's not revolutionary and soul-changing, but it doesn't intend to be. "Senna" is, and I absolutely hate using this word in relations to sports films, inspiring. Through some of the most clever doc editing I've seen in some time, as well as a lively and enveloping score by Antonio Pinto.

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