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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Ferrari // Film Review

“Who wants to come in second?”

Ferrari is Michael Mann’s most restrained film to date, playing so against type for the Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004) director that one could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t his project at all. For starters, the story has little interest in the car brand with which it shares a title, utilising the loud and vitriolic world of racing only as a device to fuel its plot. From its very first moments to its devastating grace note, it is evident that Ferrari is far more interested in the man behind the car, what that name might mean to him and what it means to the family who have to share it.

The film takes place over the course of roughly a week in the life of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), wherein he finds himself juggling at once several threats which could destroy not only his business, but his reputation as the “Great Mechanic”. Tellingly, the film opens with a diagetic commercial produced in the style of the time, allowing for some hilariously overproduced cuts and cheesy close-ups on Driver’s face as he poses for the good viewers at home.


Once we’ve skipped ahead to 1957 however, we find that Enzo Ferrari is still living as if on camera and going about each mundane day like it’s a rehearsal, even turning a visit to his son’s grave into a show-y and self-interested soliloquy about times gone by. His chief preoccupation is public relations and his only hobby beyond that seems to be teaching the craft of motorsport to his illegitimate son. The actual management of his business is left primarily in the hands of his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), who is kept at such lengths that she is unaware said illegitimate son even exists - though she has her suspicions.

Mann’s storytelling has always gravitated towards that of performative masculinity, asking what it takes it to be a man and where or where not such a performance might be necessary. To emphasise this, Ferrari dedicates most of its runtime to an often muted, sometimes roaring kitchen sink three-hander between Enzo, Laura and Enzo’s mistress Lina (Shaileen Woodley), all without the latter pair ever sharing the screen.


Cruz is particularly good here as Enzo’s foil; a woman so aware that she is her husband’s second love that she has given up performing altogether. She has no interest in appearances, and so will swear, threaten and even fire guns at whoever she chooses if it gets her what she wants. Although the men of Mann’s filmography have always tended towards fragility, Enzo is perhaps the most pathetic of all in the shadow of his two loves. His efforts to keep steady control over every aspect of his compartmentalised life are doomed from the offset, and to see him helpless as the various threads he has worked hard to separate become tangled makes for some of Mann’s most riveting, blazingly white-knuckle drama to date.


This shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of the director, whose works have often leaned into melodrama, but in a more typical Mann film these relationship woes would be accentuated by the masculine spectacle of bank robberies or shootouts. In Ferrari, the actual motorsporting is confined pretty much entirely to the final thirty minutes. Whenever racing does occur earlier in the film for plot purposes, it is relayed to us typically via radio or black-and-white TV box, with the rare occasions where Enzo and his colleagues do visit the race course keeping the cars themselves largely in the background or out of frame; white noise to support the real tensions on the sidelines. As a result, the world of racing has never felt smaller, which makes Enzo feel all the slighter for neglecting his every relationship in pursuit of it.

Inevitably, Ferrari does culminate with a spectacular racing set-piece as Enzo bets the house on an Italian open-road event called the Mille Miglia. Mann and his director of photography Erik Messerschmidt are predictably strong at capturing the speed and screeching intensity of the sport once wheels finally hit the ground, but in taking the camera away from the relationship drama and onto the track, the film does become that bit more ordinary. If Ferrari’s first ninety minutes are among Mann’s most subversive works, these last thirty are among his most ordinary and forgettable, if only because none of the characters into which we’ve invested have all that much to do. Enzo even says it himself when asked to warn his drivers off a certain approach: “what’s point, they’ll do it anyway.”


Even with its more blockbuster-y climax in mind, Ferrari remains among the stranger outliers of Mann’s career, and also one that this writer could easily see held up as a major work when the time comes for a full career retrospective. It contains all of what Mann does best, from the gorgeous contrasting colour schemes which elevate even the most expository dialogue scenes to intense, oft-muted relationship drama which can feel as violent as any action scene. It also helps that this is his first collaboration with Penélope Cruz, who comes as close to stealing the film from him as anyone this side of Al Pacino. All in all, Ferrari comes shockingly close at times to ranking among Mann's very best. It's just a shame there had to be cars in it.


Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.

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