For Enzo Ferrari, racing was a deadly passion, a terrible joy.
For director Michael Mann, the automaker and his life’s obsession make for briskly entertaining melodrama in a moment-in-time portrait focused around Ferrari and the Mille Miglia race of 1957. Adam Driver, again playing an Italian historical figure after taking on Maurizio Gucci for another major American auteur in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” stars as a grief-driven Enzo Ferrari, working to save his near-bankrupt company while trying to appease his business partner and wife, Laura. She’s played with jilted, internalized rage by Penélope Cruz in her best performance since winning an Oscar for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” In fact, you could argue that Laura, worn in as an old shoe and run dry by her husband’s dalliances and impulsive decision-making, is the ebbing aftermath of the mad woman she played in Woody Allen’s film. Cruz also, here, wrings comedy and pathos out of wielding a gun.
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“Ferrari,” Mann’s first feature since 2015’s cyber-terrorism thriller “Blackhat,” is as operatic a work as you’d expect from the master of sprawling crime dramas like “Heat” and “The Insider,” but it’s also sillier and lighter on its pedals in ways that work both for and against it. Driver and especially Shailene Woodley — who plays Lina Lardi, Enzo’s side piece and the mother of his eventual heir Piero Lardi Ferrari — struggle palpably with the Italian accents of their characters. But it’s part of the fun in a movie that never takes itself too seriously, and demonstrates Mann’s rigorous but loose-handed approach to the material, especially in wince-inducing racing sequences powered by practical effects and meticulously rendered replicas of period Ferrari and Maserati cars.
Rather than try to pack the whole of Ferrari’s linear biography into a feature film, Mann and screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin lift from the nonfiction book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine” by Brock Yates a crucial episode in Ferrari’s story: It’s Modena, Italy, in 1957, and Enzo is deep in debt, racing uphill against the forces of industrial demand and an impoverished postwar country, and soul-shattered by the loss of his son Dino, who died from muscular dystrophy the year before. “Ferrari” opens with recreated black-and-white newsreel footage of Enzo at the helm of a racecar. But by the late 1950s, he’s packed that dream away and is instead trying to rebuild his empire by casting younger racers in the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile competitive race across Italy, hoping their success will boost his superpower business’s sales and public profile.
These include Patrick Dempsey as Piero Taruffi (that year’s eventual winner of the Mille), Gabriel Leone as Alfonso De Portago, Jack O’Connell as Peter Collins, and Brett Smrz as Olivier Gendebien. But the keeper of the keys and the Ferrari company’s purse strings is his wife Laura, played by an unvarnished Cruz who perpetually looks as if she’s just finished an exhausting crying spree. Cruz and Mann came up with the clever idea for her to wear orthopedic shoes for the role, giving Cruz a weary waddle that suits Laura’s heaving trudge through life post-Dino and amid Enzo’s never-ending affairs. “We agreed you can fuck whoever you want but you have to be home before breakfast,” Laura tells Enzo when he slips back into their Modena manor after a night spent with Lina at a country pied-à-terre he’s bought for her and their lovechild.
“Ferrari” is in fact most operatically compelling as a vivisection of Enzo and Laura’s fraying marriage, with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt framing the actors in tight closeup during emotional skirmishes — when the camera’s not pulling back to reveal things like, say, the pair vigorously fucking after reaching a sly entente that turns them both on. Laura agrees to write Enzo a check for $500,000 to bail the Ferrari company out of the hole and to fund its participation in the Mille — if he’s willing to meet her terms.
“Ferrari” builds to an inevitable historical tragedy, which is that near the race’s end, the car driven by De Portago and his navigator Edmund Nelson (Erik Haugen) hit a snag in the road, went careening into the air, and killed nine roadside spectators cheering the race on. But even before that gruesomely detailed spectacle — which employs probably the most conspicuous and impact-dulling use of post-production CGI effects in a movie that’s primarily practical — Mann’s film features a handful of intense racing sequences as suspenseful as any of the delirious shootouts in his prior work. Mann and editor Pietro Scalia tighten in on the glisten of metals, the crunch of machinery, even the prosaic mechanics of shifting gears, as racecars hurtle at 120 miles per hour and bob and weave around each other.
But that nimble editing similarly applies to the film’s more psychologically grounded montages, like a contrapuntally arranged sequence in which Enzo, Laura, and Lina all attend the same opera, and its emotions stir different reveries and memories in each of them. “Ferrari” is more gritty than glossy even at its most tightly coiled, with Mann’s searching camera never quite fixed in one place. There’s also plenty of mordant wit, like when mid-Mille, Peter Collins takes a snack break, eats half a banana, and then a minder offers up the rest of it to a couple of kids watching on the racing line, eagerly hoping for a souvenir.
Ultimately, while “Ferrari” indeed centers on the man of its title, that title also extends to the same-named dynasty that made Enzo’s empire possible, the people he touched, the women left strewn by his death drive. Driver’s performance is a fine one, flanked ever by emotional guardrails even in stressed-out moments like when Enzo eyes his stopwatch for his racing Ferraris’ latest speed times. But Cruz hijacks the wheel from her co-star in a grief-dazed but always alert and forceful turn, her face a stony wall that tells of great pain. (A wonderful closeup of her staring at Dino’s mausoleum brings on a wave of conflicting emotions that tell her whole story.) The cast benefits greatly from Mann’s bottlenecking approach to one slice of Enzo’s life, as domestic and professional stresses merge in what was eventually a triumph for his company, putting Ferrari back at the front of the auto arms race against the likes of Maserati, but a tragedy for his restless, never-satisfied being.
“Ferrari” world premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Neon will release it on Christmas Day.
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