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My favourite shot in Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) comes near the end of the film. It’s during the funeral, after the untimely death of the titular Formula One racing driver. For me, it’s the culmination of an emotional effect achieved by the decision to use only archive footage throughout the picture.
A collage of borrowed images overlaid with voices from the time, the moment is lent a sense of uninterrupted immediacy: rather than presenting a story now past, using shots of modern interviews to create a temporal gap between event and supporting commentary, the picture unfolds like live action. Rather than observing cooly – assessing a filmic summary of the events – we’re shocked by the crash and brought to tears during the funeral.
In a medium shot, we see a blonde woman similarly moved by the emotion of the ceremony. Frame right, she holds Senna’s yellow and black helmet in outstretched arms, rigid with shock. She gazes into the visor – pulled down and impenetrably black – and her arms draw a diagonal line, visually accenting her desire to have her attention reciprocated. But, of course, the helmet cannot provide the human element and comes, instead, to stand as a figure of absence. What’s really moving is its contiguity with the dead driver: it’s so close to being the real thing. It’s not only that Senna wore it often: it’s also that the object had cultural currency as an emblem, pointing towards the globally recongisable driver. Synecdoche slides to a grim and literal metonymy with the death, though, as the helmet stands, in the blonde woman’s hands, as a substitute for the man, as the only thing left. A decapitation that’s gone wrong, with a head that’s not quite a head separated from a cherished body, there’s an almost grotesque quality to the tightness of her grip which is also undeniably saddening.