Director Michael Mann returns after an eight-year hiatus with Ferrari, a biopic of legendary automotive engineer and designer Enzo Ferrari. Adapted from Brock Yates’ biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine by Troy Kennedy Martin, Ferrari is a sometimes frustrating snapshot of a man who shaped motorsports and Italian car design in his own uncompromising image.
Adam Driver stars as Enzo during a critical moment in his professional and personal lives. Professionally, he’s on the brink of bankruptcy and needs a win at the upcoming Mille Miglia, a notoriously dangerous road race that looped central Italy from Brescia to Rome and back. Personally, his illegitimate son is about to be confirmed and Enzo has to decide if he's going to acknowledge the boy so he can be confirmed as a Ferrari, or if he’ll spare his wife the public embarrassment.
Mann is one of American cinema’s most romantic filmmakers, all of his films from The Last of the Mohicans to Heat to Collateral are a love story in one way or another, but Ferrari is an outlier, not a love story so much as an examination of what this particular man’s life is like after he has walled himself off from love. Enzo is a closed circuit, emotionally unavailable to his wife, his mistress, his few friends, the men who drive his cars—this is not a story about a man rediscovering happiness, Enzo cannot be made happy. And Driver nails it, giving one moment of pure vulnerability at the top of the film as Enzo makes his daily pilgrimage to his late son’s grave, and then showing only flickers of that emotion in moments Enzo snatches with his surviving son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese).
Similarly, Enzo’s wife, Laura (Penelope Cruz), is devastated by the loss of their son, Dino. She blames Enzo for his death, because he promised to save Dino but could not (Dino Ferrari died at 24 of Duchenne muscular dystrophy). Where Enzo converses with Dino’s grave daily, Laura communes silently. Cruz is simply extraordinary in the moment, her face reflecting the conversation we’re not hearing with Dino’s ghost, and it’s the only time she seems even close to content. Laura retains 50% control of the Ferrari automotive business and serves as the company’s business manager while Enzo works on the cars and manages the racing team, Scuderia Ferrari, which has suffered a recent string of losses.
Everything depends on the 1957 Mille Miglia, a win would reinvigorate car sales and stave off the necessity of selling to an outsider such as Henry Ford II. Enzo is a control freak and loathe to sell, he must manage every facet of his company, except for the books, that’s Laura’s domain. He must work out a deal with her to control her shares so he can bargain with buyers, if it comes to that, even as he is contemplating his illegitimate son’s fate within the family. He spends little time with Laura, but though their love has died, passion remains, especially on the heels of a bitter negotiation. To say that Enzo doesn’t care is too easy, but he and Laura are stuck in an emotional cage match. Divorce is illegal in Italy, and they cannot separate, so they are forced to cling to whatever common ground is left, and that is their car company.
Smartly, Mann avoids trying to cover the entirety of Enzo’s life in his film, instead focusing on the runup to the Mille Miglia and the race itself. The film also isn’t worried about the business outcome for the car company, the point is not the cars or the company, it’s Enzo and Laura and to a lesser extent, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), the woman on the outside raising Piero in a country villa, an open secret everyone knows except Laura. But Enzo is so inaccessible the film itself remains opaque, giving a feeling of an undercooked narrative. There’s a lot of great acting on display, especially from Cruz, but it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much.
As for the race scenes, Mann deploys a number of gimmicks to depict mid-century Formula 1 racing, in the era before seatbelts or any kind of real safety measures. If you’re into the true crime sub-genre of automotive disasters or you know your F1 history, “1957 Mille Miglia” ought to ring some alarm bells, as it was the last Mille Miglia ever run after a catastrophic crash left eleven people, including five children, dead. All of Mann’s gimmicks and camera trickery subside in the critical moment, when the frame snaps into dreadful, real-time clarity. It’s a jaw-dropping moment of true, visceral horror (I flashed back to the broken wire scene in Ghost Ship), and here Ferrari treads similar ground as Oppenheimer, of a man sublimating guilt into public persecution. Unfortunately, Ferrari doesn’t spend much time on the aftermath of the crash. For all that Mann avoids the trap of total-life depiction, he still rushes through seminal moments within his own time frame.
Ferrari is a mixed bag, a smarter than average biopic with great acting that still feels incomplete. It’s one thing for Enzo to be depicted as a man who has closed off his heart—or tries to, anyway—it’s another for the film itself to have no heart. But though Mann’s sensitivity to relationships and expressions of vulnerability shine through at times, particularly in the opening scene of the film, the overall feeling of Ferrari is cold. It’s like one of Enzo’s cars: beautiful, capable, but ultimately just a machine, as unfeeling as it is sleek.
Ferrari is exclusively in theaters from December 25, 2023.