It has been eight years since a new Michael Mann film played in cinemas – his last, the monstrously underrated techno-thriller Blackhat, opened in 2015. And for the first stretch of Ferrari, which had its world premiere tonight at Venice, it feels a bit like the 80-year-old director is still limbering up on the sidelines.
Mann has returned with a classically engineered racing drama from Brock Yates’s 1991 biography of the Italian car firm’s founding father Enzo. But considering this is the work of the director of Heat – who can turn a late-night coffee shop chat into the sleekest, most gripping thing you’ve ever seen – the scenes from Ferrari’s domestic and professional life that comprise much of its opening hour feel a little jumbled and staid.
Yet once the stakes have been patiently set out, and the race that will allow Ferrari to save its reputation rolls around – the 1957 Mille Miglia, which brought the company triumph and tragedy in equal degrees – it’s as if a nitrous injection has gone off under the film’s hood. The driving scenes are astonishing – as electrifyingly, wind-whippingly real as anything in the genre’s history, from Le Mans to Ford v Ferrari. Recent pretenders like Need for Speed and Gran Turismo, meanwhile, are left looking like the Fun Kart Grand Prix.
Adam Driver slips naturally into hand-clasping patrician mode – and Italian-accented English – to play Enzo, the racing driver turned automobile manufacturing mogul whose company is on the brink of ruin, and marriage not far behind. He and his wife Laura (a fine Penélope Cruz) are grieving the death of their 24-year-old son Alfredo, while Enzo slinks off to a country property to spend time with his mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley) and their much younger son Piero, whom Enzo has never publicly acknowledged. In a terrific early scene, Enzo goes to Alfredo’s mausoleum to pour out his worries, and as he leaves Laura arrives to also silently pay tribute. Cruz’s role in the film might be relatively minor, but here she furnishes it with its finest performance.
“Jaguar races to sell cars. I sell cars in order to race,” is how Enzo characterises the difference between his own appetites and those of his rivals. But the racing hasn’t been going too well, with many of those rivals closing in quick – not least driver Stirling Moss who is enjoyably played by Ben Collins, AKA Top Gear’s mystery racer The Stig.
In an ingeniously edited sequence, Mann has Ferrari and his colleagues constantly glancing at stopwatches during Mass one Sunday, while a Maserati driver breaks their fastest time at a local circuit. As soon as the service ends, Enzo has his team try to reclaim the record with ultimately tragic consequences.
Here and elsewhere, the crash scenes have a horrible heart-in-mouth quality: it’s as if you can feel the tumble of gravity working on your own insides. And the same goes for the racing itself, which like the vehicles is somehow sleek and crunchy all at once – inches from disaster at any given moment, and all the more beautiful for it.
Screening at the Venice Film Festival. In UK cinemas from Boxing Day