Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Troy Kennedy Martin (based on the book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine by Brock Yates)
Stars: Adam Driver (Enzo Ferrari), Penélope Cruz (Laura Ferrari), Shailene Woodley (Lina Lardi), Sarah Gadon (Linda Christian), Gabriel Leone (Alfonso de Portago), Jack O’Connell), Patrick Dempsey (Piero Taruffi), Michele Savoia (Carlo Chiti), Lino Musella (Sergio Scaglietti), Domenico Fortunato (Adolfo Orsi), Jacopo Bruno (Omer Orsi), Giuseppe Festinese (Piero Lardi)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2023
Country: U.S.

In interviews, Michael Mann has talked about his latest film, Ferrari, as a dream project, and whenever a director talks in such terms, it immediately gives me pause, especially when said project has, like Ferrari, been in some form of development for decades (Mann first started working with screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, who passed away in 2009, in the early 1990s). There are usually good reasons when projects repeatedly stall, and oftentimes tenacious auteurs become determined to see them through if only to beat the system and prove their mettle. Whether the project is worthwhile or not is beside the point.

Watching Ferrari made me wonder if Mann hadn’t lost perspective on his subject somewhere in those decades, as it is difficult to discern what he found appealing or fascinating or enthralling about Enzo Ferrari, the mid-20th-century Italian racecar driver-turned-racecar designer and entrepreneur. In an interview with Bilge Ebiri in Vulture, Mann talks of Ferrari’s “spectacular duality” and how “A lot of forces in his life are contrary to other impulses and forces,” but in the film he mostly comes across as sullen, myopic, and selfish. Adam Driver, usually such a reliable presence on the screen, gives a curiously empty performance as Ferrari, which doesn’t help. He gives the role plenty of spit and energy and volume, but we never get any sense of who Enzo Ferrari is or what makes him tick beyond his drive to succeed, which conflicts with the film’s apparent desire to emphasize his interpersonal travails and how those intersected with his business ambitions.

Part of the issue may have been the decision to focus on a very specific period in Ferrari’s life, namely the year 1957 when his business was on the brink of collapse, he was straining under the weight of continually keeping secret from his long-suffering wife the son he fathered a decade earlier and keeps hidden in a country manor with his mother, and the pressure of pushing his drivers to win the Mille Miglia, a dangerous, 1,000-mile, open road endurance race. The film opens with a brief disclaimer about the year and Ferrari’s business struggles, after which we are left to piece together the various relationships. Ferrari awakens in the opening scene in the country estate where his long-time mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), lives with their son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese). He then goes to his home in Modena, the southern Italian city where he was born and lived most of his life (Mann, not surprisingly, shot entirely on location), where his infuriated wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), with whom he founded his car company and who still controls 50% of it, takes several shots at him with a pistol just to emphasize her anger. We come to understand that her anger is grounded in both her awareness of Ferrari’s infidelity (although she does not know at this point that he has a second family), but even more crucially the recent death of their son, Dino, whose mausoleum they each visit separately.

We eventually get a few brief flashbacks to happier days when Enzo and Laura were younger and Dino was alive and well, but otherwise there is virtually no sense of who they were before they became estranged and bitter. Because Enzo is the protagonist of the film, he is always at the center, and his dilemma over whether he should let Laura know about Piero’s existence—a particularly painful thing given that she has lost her one and only son and is too old to ever have another—is presented as a genuine moral dilemma, as if he had not spent the previous 10 years conniving and hiding and lying and, ultimately, loving a child who can replace his loss and leaves Laura empty in more ways than one can count—male privilege at its worst. No wonder she is so angry and brittle, which is pretty much how Penélope Cruz plays her in every scene; with the exception of one, pained smile she lets unfold as she looks at Dino’s photo in his mausoleum, she scowls and frowns throughout the film, her anger physically emphasized by her lack of make-up and deep, dark black circles under her eyes. She is an effective portrait of grief and resentment, but it is hard not to feel that she is being used and abused by the film, her fury set in counterpoint to Enzo’s calm and cool in even the most strenuous of situations.

I have not read the film’s source material, Brock Yates’s 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, and I know little about Enzo Ferrari, so my response to his character in the film is not shaped by a wider understanding of who he was as a man. What the film provides is a conflicted portrait of a stylish tyrant, a deeply self-centered man who was willing to psychologically manipulate his drivers to compete against each other, sometimes putting them in potentially fatal situations, if it meant more glory for Ferrari (the man or the company or both, take your pick). This culminates in a gruesome tragedy late in the film that those who know Ferrari’s history will see coming, and it is one of its most effective moments, not just for the shocking, gory audacity of the awful violence, but because it feels brutally honest, unlike so much of the rest of the film, which feels too much like it is pulling punches.

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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