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Formula One driver Ayrton Senna is the high priest of speed in 'Senna'

This weekend, while drivers wheel around the Inner Harbor for the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, moviegoers a few blocks from downtown will be watching the story of a brave, imaginative man who was the Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan of auto racing.

"Senna," which opened at the Landmark Harbor East on Friday, is a thrilling movie — a documentary action portrait of the Brazilian racecar driver Ayrton Senna, who became the greatest Formula One champion in history.

Senna was a ray of hope to his beleaguered nation in the 1980s and 1990s, when the South American giant was emerging from a military dictatorship. By dint of his skill, intellect and courage, he proved to be a transformational figure in Grand Prix competition.

"Ayrton is one of my heroes and an idol for all Brazilians," said Tony Kanaan, who is racing Sunday in the Baltimore Grand Prix. "He caused a huge impact in my racing career. A lot of people here in America know that Senna was an outstanding driver, great sport ambassador and that he meant a great deal to Brazil, but watching the film will make them understand why."

Even though he was a child of privilege, Senna became a symbol of daring and achievement for all Brazilians, from the underclass to the upper-crust. With energy and daring, he broke open the ranks of a European gentleman's sport, winning three Formula One world championships and 41 Grand Prix races, and earning the pole position in 65 out of 161 races. He has inspired a movie that is worthy of his legacy.

"Senna," which also opened Friday in Hanover at the Cinemark Egyptian 24, pulls off its own remarkable feat. It tells Senna's extraordinary story strictly with film and video taken from the late-1970s to the mid-1990s.

Digging into Formula One Management's trove of behind-the-scenes footage, including races shot from cameras mounted on Senna's cars, this film puts you in the cockpit as Senna navigates curving and sometimes zig-zag routes at speeds up to 200 mph. It also thrusts you under the skin of an athlete who operated as a visionary artist — and a man of faith who saw the pursuit of speed as a quest to get close to God.

While the Baltimore race is an IndyCar, not Formula One, competition, both feature open-wheel vehicles geared for speed (there's a continuing debate about whether Formula One or IndyCars are the swiftest of the swift). The IndyCar series employs one chassis manufacturer and one engine supplier; the Formula One series, known for cutting-edge innovation, makes each competing team design and build its own chassis and engine.

"Senna" is playing Mobtown at this auspicious time thanks to the Producers Distribution Agency, co-founded by Bart Walker, a Mount Washington-bred graduate of the Park School, and John Sloss, his partner in Cinetic Media, an all-service provider to independent movie talents like directors Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right") and Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In").

Sloss and Walker launched PDA a year and half ago with Banksy's documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a combination fact-based essay and can-you-believe-it chronicle about the anything-goes vitality — and hucksterism — of contemporary art. Despite the esoteric subject and a filmmaker who remained anonymous, it scored in American theaters, becoming one of the top-50 earners in documentary history and a best-documentary Oscar nominee.

Partly because James Gay-Rees, who co-produced "Exit," did the same for "Senna," Sloss and Walker tracked the racecar movie closely. But not even record-breaking runs in England prepared them for the runaway business that "Senna" has enjoyed in its initial U.S. engagements — or for the serendipity of an IndyCar Grand Prix running in Walker's hometown at the same time. IndyCar star Kanaan is also friends with Brazilian Formula One racer Rubens Barrichello, who appears in the final reels of "Senna."

Kanaan is right — watching the film you do understand Senna on a visceral, emotional and even spiritual level. But articulating that understanding — that's something else.

Asif Kapadia, the film's London-based director, said Senna's combination of ruthlessness and sensitivity is what makes him equally compelling to men and women.

"You've got somebody who had his faith, his beliefs, his desire to win, but he was ultra-competitive, not someone you could see as a goody two-shoes," Kapadia said. "He wasn't an 'after-you' kind of guy. He was 'I'm leading, I'm coming through, get out of my way!'

"But there was this other side — this caring side. The mixture of the two is what makes him great. He fights what he sees as corruption — you see him standing up and speaking out on what he considered unfair. And he's the one on the Formula One circuit who cares the most about safety, who's fighting all the time for other drivers."

Safety is part of Senna's legacy: He died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but no Formula One racer has died in the cockpit since.

Kapadia's decision to restrict himself to footage shot from 1978 to 1994 makes it resemble a you-are-there kind of fiction film more than a conventional documentary.

"We don't have anyone [except Senna] telling you what to think," he said. "When he was in 'the zone' at 200 miles per hour, driving one-handed because of the stick shift they used in those days, he felt something that he could feel only when he was on the limit."

In a sports world that was political and commercial, Senna strove to achieve what Olympic athletes call their "personal best." His essential fight was not with his great rival, Alain Prost, but with himself.

You could see him as a visionary artist expressing himself through action — he was ahead of his time in the way he would talk about visualizing a race. Or you could see him as he saw himself — as a child of God.

"The first time he gets into a car, he thanks God for giving him a chance," Kapadia said. "Just before he gets into a car for the last time, he reads the Bible and he gets another message. Whether you believe in God or not, his faith is a part of his journey."

When Senna burst onto the Formula One scene in the 1980s, you could still see drivers who were paunchy, smoking and possibly hungover. Senna trained like an athlete while mentally running through his races before he got behind the wheel.

"Senna" opened with a bang in the U.S., hauling in $73,497 from two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. When it broadened out last week, it had the highest per-screen average (over $8,000) of any film, despite Hurricane Irene.

PDA co-founder Sloss had never heard of Ayrton Senna, he confessed. But when he visited London last summer, he viewed the documentary in a working cut and was, he said, "completely taken with it, as a transcendent, immensely emotional film about ambition and excellence."

Even though "Senna" won the Audience Award at Sundance, conventional wisdom said U.S. audiences would not turn out to watch a Formula One racer — NASCAR and IndyCar had siphoned off Americans' fascination for a competition that was glamorous in the days of the "jet set."

So Sloss and Walker reassembled the PDA crew that had made "Exit Through the Gift Shop" a hit. They believed they had a documentary that could cross over to feature audiences, Walker said, "because of the charm and charisma of the character and his story and the passion with which he lived his life."

Harbor East was a natural for Baltimore, especially with the Baltimore Grand Prix whizzing nearby. PDA's distribution and marketing guru Richard Abramowitz felt confident that the Cinemark Egyptian could be a prime location for "Senna," too — especially if Cinemark would make good on its promise to dress up theaters with enough checkered flags and balloons to bring attention to the movie "without making the lobby look like a Jiffy Lube."

One aspect of the film that director Kapidia loves is Senna's admission that he doesn't feel "complete" as a man — "he recognizes that it's not good to shape a life around an obsession that puts everything into his profession."

But Walker and company are determined that Kapidia won't feel like an incomplete filmmaker by the time they're through with "Senna."

"A movie only really completes itself when it finds its audience," Walker said.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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