Michael Mann would seem a perfect fit for a biopic of Italian motorsports legend Enzo Ferrari, himself being a master technician and a director working at the high end of his commercial craft. The result, though, is a strangely tame beast, an introspective look at an in-between moment in its subject’s life, when his business hit the rocks, his marriage all but imploded and a series of fatal accidents kept his name in the papers for all the wrong reasons.
Meaty stuff, for sure, but a gnomic and, given what’s at stake, strangely unemotional lead performance from Adam Driver makes it hard to warm to this odd and deeply self-absorbed character. Add in the glacial pace of its narrative, and a film expected to take an early awards-season lead will struggle to hold that pole position.
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Like Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Ferrari opens with a salvo of archive footage to cover the early years of the story, when the young Enzo was a driver to be reckoned with before the birth of his son Alfredo inspired him to retire. A title card tells us that Ferrari and his wife Laura, whom he married in 1932, founded Ferrari S.p.a in 1947, then a second title card tells us that the film is set in 1957. A lot has happened in those 10 years; Alfredo died at 24 as a result of muscular dystrophy in 1956, and Ferrari’s business has nosedived: Even though his clients include literal kings, the man they call commendatore is spending far too much money on racing and not paying anywhere near enough attention to the car manufacturing that pays for it.
The film begins, almost literally, with a bang, as Ferrari sneaks home after spending the night with his longterm mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley). “I don’t give a f*ck who you screw, or how many whores,” Laura screams. “You have to be here before the maid arrives!” Pulling out a pistol, she fires a shot that narrowly misses his head (“I’d re-arm Germany before I gave that woman a gun,” notes her mother-in-law, in the first of the film’s several dry-as-a-bone zingers). Their estrangement is such that even their grief for their dead son is such a bone of contention that they take it in turns to visit his mausoleum.
Ferrari is a haunted man, and not just by the ghost of Alfredo; the early days of motor racing were famously unsafe, and there will be a lot of deaths yet to follow in the next two hours. For instance, when a young man called Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) offers his services at the track, Ferrari tells him he doesn’t need another driver. Five minutes and a spectacular crash later, he’s told, “Call my office on Monday.”
The death of another driver raises the ire of the press, who line up to accuse Ferrari of having blood on his hands (he is “an industrial Saturn devouring his own children,” according to one journalist). And, to be honest, they have a point. Just as Oppenheimer made a big deal about the physicist’s security clearance being — quite rightly — revoked, Mann’s film glosses over the fact that Enzo Ferrari was driven largely by jealousy at this point, having lost Le Mans to Jaguar, whose fortunes soared as a result. True, motor racing always has been a dangerous sport, but Ferrari’s insouciance to car-related carnage, even when members of the public are involved, leaves a bitter aftertaste.
The climax of the film is the 1957 Mille Miglia race, scene of an accident that would tangle Ferrari — the company and the man — in red tape for the next four years. But, weirdly, this is where the film enters its least interesting patch, interspersing Ferrari’s pontifications with scenes from the race, which is a memory test in itself in regard to which of Ferrari’s drivers are driving which of the numbered red cars.
The last 15 minutes or so, though, do rally, with a moment in which Cruz gets, finally, to do some acting, having played a crazy, sour-faced bitch for two hours while we’re asked to sympathize with her husband, who has hidden from her not just a decade-long affair but a son that he has secretly raised as his own, taking funds from the company to do so. Although this fleshes out her character in unexpected ways, one would imagine that the real-life Laura deserves a little more respect than just a big scene at the end.
And then Ferrari ends as it began, with a few more title cards explaining, in very broad strokes, what happened next. Like the film itself, however, this isn’t really enough. In the grand pantheon of movies about motoring, Ferrari will be lucky to find a parking spot.
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Director: Michael Mann
Screenwriter: Troy Kennedy Martin
Cast: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley
Running time: 2hr 10 min
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