Movie Review: In ‘Ferrari’ Michael Mann puts you in the driver’s seat

The director’s portrait of the Italian racecar impresario roars to life on the road, but home is a torment

By Manohla Dargis

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Published: Mon 1 Jan 2024, 3:47 PM

Last updated: Mon 1 Jan 2024, 4:11 PM

In Ferrari, releasing on January 4 in the UAE, Adam Driver looms like a colossus as Enzo Ferrari. Driver is tall and rangy, but he looks even bigger here — wider, too — partly because Enzo wears boxy suits with linebacker shoulders so broad they nearly scrape the edges of the frame. The most famous man in Italy aside from the Pope, Enzo makes blood-red race cars with sexy curves and supercharged engines. The Commendatore, as he’s called, looks more like a tank. He seems an ideal vehicle for Michael Mann, a filmmaker with his own line of beautiful obsessions.

Set largely in 1957, the movie Ferrari focuses on an especially catastrophic year in Enzo’s convoluted life. He makes some of the most coveted cars in the world: There’s a king impatiently waiting in Enzo’s office not long after the story takes off. (That royal personage, who’s short, is anxious that, this time, his feet will reach the pedals easily.) All the world wants something from Ferrari, who in turn seems to care only about his race cars, ravishing red beasts that roar out of his factory near his home in Modena and into the world’s fastest, most lethally dangerous races, where records, machines and bodies are routinely broken.

What makes those cars and Ferrari run permeates the movie, which opens with the young Enzo (Driver) behind the wheel, racing and all but flying. The jaunty, propulsive jazz on the soundtrack give the scene inviting charm (you’re ready to jump in Enzo’s car, too), as does the smile that spreads across his face. It’s one of the few times he cracks one. Soon after, the story downshifts to an older Commendatore, now gray and imperial and facing bankruptcy as he struggles both with work and two households with two very different women. One greets him on an especially angry morning by firing a gun at him, which does get his attention.

Death stalks Enzo and this movie, which energetically gathers momentum even as Mann busily juggles the story’s numerous parts and warring dualisms. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin, the film is based on Brock Yates’ cleareyed 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, if only in strategic part. While the book traces its subject (and brand) from cradle to beyond the grave, the movie condenses the automaker’s life into a brief, emblematic period and a series of dramatic oppositions, including two sons, one living and one dead, as well as the road cars that Enzo sells and the race cars that are his life’s passion.

The movie is similarly divided between genres, and like Enzo himself, it toggles between the melodrama that defines his domestic life and the thriller that takes off every time one of his race cars does. Mann spends a lot of time on Enzo’s bifurcated personal life, which is split between his house in Modena and a pastoral farmhouse outside the city. In Modena, he lives in a gloomy mansion that he shares with Laura (Penélope Cruz), his wife and business partner, and with his mother (a ferocious Daniela Piperno), a gorgon who haunts the other inhabitants like a curse. It’s no wonder that he regularly flees to the farmhouse to be with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), and their young son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese).

With these women, Mann expands the usual narrow parameters of the great-man-of-history narrative but only Enzo’s relationship with Laura proves of interest. Woodley is serviceable as Lina, a tousled bland homebody who, for the most part, is either in bed or whipping something up in the kitchen. Despite the couple’s issues — Lina wants Enzo to legally recognize their son so that he can carry the Ferrari name — their relationship is too pedestrian, or maybe simply too happy, to be productive, at least for this director. Mostly, Lina and Piero function as the temperate, tolerant counterpoint to his miserable marriage.

A lot of effort has gone into frumping up Cruz for that marriage; it’s a lost cause. Her Laura is no more dowdy than Anna Magnani, the mythic Italian actress who’s a clear reference, certainly visually, for the character. Cruz presents an inherently glamorous picture, however much Laura has been dulled by the death of her and Enzo’s only son. Cruz lets light into this often unmodulated character, whose emotional palette ranges between bitter resentment and barely contained rage, adding intricate, complicating notes. You see the faded humor in Laura’s sardonic bitterness, and maybe something that once approached joy. You also see the toughness and intelligence of the woman who helped build the Ferrari brand and the legend.

Driver lets you into Enzo as far as possible given the material, though the actor’s warmth and decency never fully mesh with his character’s cool, consuming self-interest. Like a number of Mann’s other more memorable protagonists, Enzo is a gravely serious, hardworking, closed fist of a man who often seems ready to strike. That threat can keep you both on edge and fixed on these characters, and is crucial to their violent charisma. If brutality were all there was to them, though, they would be forgettable, nothing more than cheap villains. Part of what makes them mesmerizing is the play between their existential torrent and the titanic willed effort it takes for these characters to hold all of it (whatever that it is) in check.

Outwardly, Enzo has the makings of a natural addition to Mann’s stable of troubled and tormented men, anguished souls that he gives voice to with his sublimely expressionistic filmmaking. Yet Enzo remains out of reach. One issue is that Mann needs a character with soul, not just a calling. He keeps searching for one and, to that end, he periodically shows Enzo in a close-up so extreme that the automaker’s face crowds the foreground, dominating your sightlines much as he dominates his life. These images convey Enzo’s isolation from much of his world, with all its living and needlessly dead. You’re about as deep inside this character’s head as imaginable, though given the glimpses you catch of what’s inside and all the damage that Enzo does, it is the filmmaker more than the character who holds you rapt.

Ferrari

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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