Ferrari Review: A Full-Throttle Comeback

You can always spot a Michael Mann protagonist. Well-dressed but never flashy. Hair presentable but not in a way that would take extra time from their routine. Quiet but not submissive. They keep to themselves. Above all, they are consummate professionals. Whether they be bank robbers, homicide detectives, hackers, etc., they are good at what they do. Some might break the law, but there is a value system present. You never break the code of conduct. When circumstances alter the plan, they adapt. We are thrilled to watch these characters work, but the characters don’t enjoy it. Honing their craft is more of a compulsion than a pleasure.

Previous films have addressed the inner turmoil of Mann’s protagonists. Frank (James Caan) in Thief and Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat are men who want what everyone else does but get shunned for their trade. However, everyone in Italy loves Ferrari’s cars. It’s how he managed to finance his racing for so long. He was an exemplary driver, but he now wears a business suit to run a company facing turbulence. Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is a digression of sorts for Mann. Enzo’s alienation comes not from association with crime but from being a terrible husband/father.

Seemingly, Enzo has it all. He wakes up next to Lina (Shailene Woodley), and he’s greeted by his son, Piero, both with adoration in their eyes. Everything is seemingly perfect. But Piero is his son with his mistress, not his wife. Laura (Penélope Cruz) is Enzo’s wife, and their son Dino died from muscular dystrophy. The couple now has conversations marked by antagonism. The wound of grief is still raw. There is love still, although Laura would just as quickly shoot Enzo as embrace him. Laura knows that Enzo is not faithful to her, but she doesn’t know about his second family. Piero also needs a last name for his confirmation, which has Lina pressing Enzo to choose between his two families and invites the violence Laura would inflict if she knew about Piero.

Enzo has avoided dealing with conflict for years, but his two lives are colliding. While no longer a romantic partner, Laura still owns 50% of Ferrari, and, accordingly, she can send the whole house of cards crashing down whenever she wants. If Enzo wants to finance the 1,000-mile race across Italy, he’ll need Laura’s shares of the company. A win at the Mille Miglia could boost Ferrari sales significantly. A bad showing could send everything into an inferno. The stakes are ridiculously high, yet Enzo is glib: “You win on Sunday, you sell on Monday.”

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One of the themes of Mann’s filmography is that masculinity is a prison of one’s making. Hardened by choice, Enzo holds others at arm’s length, throwing himself into business instead. The film points to Enzo’s obsession as a coping mechanism for grief, although it doesn’t explore the issue much deeper than that. Burying himself at work is difficult because the company bearing his name is nearly bankrupt. As revered as the Ferrari name is, business is fickle. Ferrari doesn’t sell vehicles like it used to—only 100 a year. Ford and Fiat are kicking the tires on the company. His business manager, Cuoghi (Giuseppe Bonifati), knows that for Ferrari to live, the company must attract outside investors. A surefire way to do that? Win the Mille Miglia.

It comes as no surprise that Mann brilliantly executes the technical aspects of the race that defines the second half of Ferrari. The camera is restless during the pivotal race, convinced that danger lingers around every corner. Those familiar with the history of the 1957 event will feel that same pull of danger in their chest. Like any character in a Mann film, the drivers’ choices define them. Because he was also behind the wheel when it mattered most, Enzo knows how to pick a team. First up is Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone), who replaces the driver who died tragically during time trials; Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell), who is a bit of a daredevil; and, finally, Piero Taruffi (real-life racer Patrick Dempsey), the sly veteran of the crew. Before the race begins, Mann captures them writing notes to their loved ones, trying to find peace in the calm before the storm.

Such dramatics aren’t just for show. Many drivers—and spectators—have died throughout the race’s history.

Not that Enzo will shed a tear. The last time a racer on his team died, he blamed it on the racer dating out of his class. He got distracted, and now he’s dead, so let’s move on. It’s one of many moments where Enzo uses his arrogance to keep others away. Everything in the makeup/costume design, from his slicked hair to his perfectly fitted suit, projects excellence. The tie separates the head from the heart. It’s the only way to survive. Adam Driver’s performance as Enzo is more finely calibrated here than in House of Gucci. He’s cold and calculating but not emotionless. The key to Driver’s portrayal is the restraint.

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Cruz is the Yin to Driver’s Yang. Where he’s icy cold, she’s combustible. All of her scenes have the potential to end in violence or financial ruin for Enzo, and she relishes in twisting the screws to the man who’s had no regard for her for years. In a film filled with twisted metal and explosions, Laura’s eruptions are the most frightening. Laura is not only a great turn by Cruz, but she might be one of the most memorable characters in Mann’s oeuvre. Women aren’t prominently featured in films like Heat or Collateral, yet Laura stands head and shoulders above the ensemble. So many women in these films have chastised the distant men in their lives, Laura seeks to rip him apart and rebuild him at his core.

Fair or not, one wishes that Shailene Woodley’s screentime was gifted to Cruz instead. Woodley’s Italian accent disappears when it counts, and while her character’s motivations ring true, one wishes it wasn’t so distracting.

Informed by the decade’s decor and tactile details, everything transports you to the time. Troy Kennedy Martin’s script, written in the mid-’90s (Martin passed in 2009), also lends a classic feel. Mann’s films thrive on verisimilitude, and Ferrari‘s production design and costuming send viewers back into the ’50s with flair. Yet the most important details are focused on the racing. Once the pivotal Mille Miglia begins, the film locks in on the minute-by-minute thrills. The cameras are stationary for most of the marriage drama, but Mann puts them to work for race scenes. You won’t be able to look away, even when you want to. But don’t confuse what you see for a glamorous portrait of racing. Watching drivers court death is harrowing, not riveting. A scene in this film rivals When Evil Lurks as the most disturbing in 2023.

All the characters in Ferrari are trapped in the past, whether by decisions they made or ones fate made for them. Enzo’s decisions have condemned the people around him to heartache, but making amends at this late hour comes too little too late for many. He leaves ghosts in his wake at home and on the racetrack, but it all pales to the immortality he seeks. Enzo knows the only way out is through—at reckless speed. It’s the price you pay for excellence.

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If Blackhat turned you off of Mann’s recent efforts (you should really be watching Tokyo Vice), let Ferrari be the film that brings you back.

Ferrari races into theatres on December 25.

 



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