The gleaming color known as rosso corsa, or “racing red,” is the lifeblood of Ferrari, Michael Mann’s dynamic account of the few months over the summer of 1957 when the Italian auto manufacturer was hanging by a financial thread and founder Enzo Ferrari was forced to reckon with the separate lives he had been leading, split between his wife and his mistress. That dazzling shade became synonymous with the lean machines the company built for the race track, their hoods adorned with the prancing black stallion crest. But it also suggests the fierce competitive spirit coursing through the veins of the man himself in the cool command of Adam Driver’s performance.
Scheduled for Dec. 25 release in the U.S. from Neon, Ferrari is as unapologetically masculine as anything Mann has made and also as visceral, never more so than when it’s revving its engines and roaring around the track or along open roads in exciting race scenes. But, for better or worse, the screenplay by Troy Kennedy Martin, based on motorsports journalist Brock Yates’ biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Car, The Races, The Machine, gives equal time to the personal crises facing its subject in summer 1957.
The Bottom Line
Not without flaws, but mostly fast and furious, with a brain.
It was a smart decision to forego any cradle-to-grave ambitions and focus instead on a concentrated period in which multiple factors weighed on the future of Ferrari. It gives the film high tension both on and off the track, and even if the emotionally charged domestic scenes seldom match the adrenaline rush of the hair-raising race sequences, they provide intimate access to a man whose brusque, all-business manner — his underlings call him Commendatore, or Commander — and flinty wit might otherwise have kept him at a distance.
With a shock of silver hair and an almost permanent uniform of boxy gray or earth-toned suit and sunglasses, Driver’s Enzo doesn’t always escape the echo of that other Italian power player in his recent filmography, in the inadvertently campy House of Gucci. But he brings gravitas and unquestionable intellect to a man known for his exacting attention to every detail of design and handling on his cars.
The backstory that brought Enzo to the crossroads depicted here is economically sketched, starting with black-and-white mock-newsreel footage of him in his goggles at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, looking maniacally intent on winning a race in the 1920s. He stepped away from that part of his career soon after, shifting his attention to managing a Formula 1 race team and producing his own vehicles for the sport.
By the mid ‘50s, demand for Ferraris is far exceeding supply, putting Enzo under pressure to increase productivity at the manufacturing plant he and his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) founded in Modena. The extent to which the auto business defines the Northern Italian city is evident in a priest’s sermon during Mass, about the role of metalworkers, “building engines to speed us through the world.” With the company almost broke, Enzo’s money men urge him to find an investment partner, but he fears the loss of control that a major cash infusion from a giant like Fiat or Ford would entail.
Any such negotiation is also complicated by the fact that business-savvy Laura has a stock majority and the freehold on the plant, which she uses for leverage. Their marriage is in tatters following the tragic loss of their only son Dino to muscular dystrophy at age 24 the previous year. Laura’s hostility about her husband’s philandering is further inflamed when she becomes seemingly the last person in Modena to find out about his longtime relationship with another woman, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), which dates back to the war years and produced a son who’s now 10.
Mann deftly recaps happy memories from earlier times of Enzo’s relationships with both women during a performance of La Traviata.
This is a movie full of shaky Italian accents that you just have to accept in order for it to work. But Woodley seems miscast, and not only because she’s about as Italian as Pizza Hut. Her scenes are the weakest, with Mann veering a tad awkwardly into uncharacteristic melodrama as Lina grows impatient for Enzo to legally acknowledge their boy.
Cruz has more interesting textures to play. Laura’s bristling anger is unleashed when she fires a warning shot at Enzo after he disrespects her one too many times by breaking his agreement to come home to their apartment before the maid arrives each morning. Her slovenly appearance suggests that she’s stopped caring but resentment is etched deep across her face, even if flashes of the heat in their marriage still resurface.
When a slip of the tongue by a bank employee reveals the unknown existence of a property purchased by the company, Cruz has wonderful moments of wounded rage. Laura orders her driver to take her to the villa where Lina lives in the country just outside town, her face a mask of conflicted emotions as she picks up a toy racecar and intuits that Enzo has fathered another son, a discovery that hurts more coming after the death of their own child.
While all this is engrossing, Ferrari fundamentally is about the big race, where Mann’s virtuoso technique kicks in and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s cameras put us at the wheel or in the path of the speeding roadsters to thrilling effect. The Mille Miglia competition is run on 1,000 miles of open road across Italy, going through ancient towns (their streets lined with hay bales to protect buildings and spectators) and bucolic countryside. A stretch showing the cars zipping through an expansive mountain pass is breathtaking. (Italian locations, including Modena, are a plus throughout.)
Enzo enters five drivers in the race, which will be crucial to securing the right investor. His hopes are pinned particularly on three of them — Italian veteran Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey), cocky Brit Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell) and hungry Spanish up-and-comer Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone). The latter’s relationship with actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon) exemplifies the glamour of the sport, which Enzo regards as a distraction.
Driver takes advantage of wry touches in the screenplay as Enzo gives individual encouragement to each pilot, slyly pitting them against one another while ostensibly rooting for the entire team. But the character is also revealed to be solemnly mindful of the risk of fatalities in motorsports. The deaths of two of his drivers have earned him damning epithets in the Italian press, such as “widow-maker,” “assassin,” or the mostly flowery of them, “Saturn devouring his children.”
A Ferrari team member’s triumph is rendered bittersweet by tragedy, which Mann recreates with brutally unflinching impact, making a startling track accident from early in the action look like a mere scrape. The brief scenes that follow conclude the movie too abruptly to be fully satisfying, but the spectacular set-pieces, packed with both exhilaration and danger, more than compensate. They are also sufficiently different to make this an interesting unofficial prequel to James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, set the following decade.
Pietro Scalia’s mercurial editing gives those scenes an unpredictable edge, as does Messerschmidt’s bravura camerawork, which often gives the illusion of being embedded in the tarmac, and sound design that you feel in your guts. Daniel Pemberton’s score — propulsive or emotional as required — also contributes to keep the pace feeling brisk over a two-hours-plus running time. Ferrari is unlikely to go down as canonical Mann, lacking the glimmering, hard-edged stylishness of his best work. But admirers of the director’s high-intensity, muscular filmmaking will not go unrewarded.