Trailer of the movie SENNA which will be available soon. This trailer was first presented to the journalists and photographers at the Formula One Grand Prix of Brasil, on November 4th, 2010.

Sundance 2011: Tears and thrills from the Formula One track in ‘Senna’

January 22, 2011 | 10:30 am

Sometimes a documentary will unexpectedly reach out and grab you by the throat, not giving you a second to breathe. That’s that way it was with “Senna,” which had its North American premiere Friday night in Sundance’s world documentary competition.

Fans of Formula One racing will know at once that this is a film about the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, considered by some to be the greatest driver who ever lived. A boy genius behind the wheel, capable of pushing cars beyond their capacity, Senna won 33 races and three Grand Prix titles before dying in a crash in 1994 at age 34.

Told solely through the use of archival footage, “Senna” is bursting with great racing sequences, many dealing with his bitter rivalry with French champion Alain Prost. But what makes this film so riveting is the remarkable personality of the man himself.

Someone who just flat-out loved to drive, Senna was a purist who had complete disdain for the politics that had to be played in the cliquish Formula One world. Though he drove like the devil, he was a spiritual person who believed deeply and profoundly in a higher power. A philosophical mystic with a jewel thief’s nerves and a poet’s sensitivity (and good looks), Senna was an altogether remarkable human being.

“Senna” is fortunate in having Asif Kapadia, best known for his award-winning dramatic debut, “The Warrior,” in charge. A British director with a keen sense of drama and a gift for narrative drive, Kapadia also had, said screenwriter and executive producer Manish Pandey, the kind of impeccable eye needed to cull 104 minutes of film from 15,000 hours of archival footage.

Though everything about “Senna” took forever — years to get the cooperation of both the Senna family and the Formula One hierarchy, further years to do the archival research and then to edit — the result has been extraordinarily satisfying to the team that spearheaded the work.

Pandey talked about showing the film to Ron Dennis, the head of the McLaren racing team, a man known for being unemotional and so conscious of not wasting a minute of time that he has a car and driver waiting for him everywhere he goes.

“After the film ended, Ron Dennis cried for 10 minutes,” Pandey said. “Then he sat and talked about Senna for two hours.” Such is the power of this man, and this film.

— Kenneth Turan

Photo: Ayrton Senna in the driver’s seat in a scene from “Senna.” Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival