“The name Ferrari alone doesn’t kick the story into the next gear, and the film mostly stays at a safe cruising speed.”
Ferrari. A name synonymous with speed. A mere mention of it will get the hearts of petrolheads racing. Founded in 1939 by Enzo Ferrari and his wife Laura (though production of cars didn’t start until 1947), the brand has established itself as the sports car for the rich and famous. Focusing on the earlier years of the legendary car manufacturer, Michael Mann’s return to cinema after 2015’s disappointing cybercrime thriller Blackhat is more a character drama surrounding the tempestuous relationship between Enzo and his wife since the death of their son than it is a film about fast cars. Which isn’t to say those cars don’t feature; in fact it is the racing sequences where the film puts the pedal to the metal, whilst otherwise mostly sticking in third gear and never truly realizing the idea of why Enzo Ferrari’s private life should be the focus of this film.
Modena, 1957. Enzo Ferrari’s car company is in difficulties, both financial and on the track. Fierce competitor Maserati, another one of those brands of Italian sports cars (Lamborghini wasn’t founded until the mid-’60s), builds faster cars and has better drivers under contract. Ferrari is losing money because of the focus Enzo (Adam Driver) has on racing instead of producing cars that people actually want to buy. As if that isn’t enough, the relationship between him and his wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) has known better days, to put it mildly (in their first full scene together she fires a gun at him; that kind of sets the tone). It has deteriorated after the death of their son Dino a year prior, as a result of muscular dystrophy. They each grieve in their own way, visiting Dino’s grave every day but separate from each other. Unbeknownst to Laura, Enzo had another son, the young Piero, with his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley). Forced to hold talks with Fiat’s Agnelli family for a financial injection into the company, Enzo has to get Laura to allow him to use her half of the shares in the negotiations, but when Laura finds out about her husband’s affair with Lina the deal is in serious trouble. All the while Enzo also has to focus on what is going on with the racing division.
On the track Ferrari is being beaten by Maserati, and in an attempt to get a speed record back one of Ferrari’s drivers loses his life. Enzo, a former race car driver himself, hardly blinks an eye and hires Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), a cocky young driver and flamboyant Spanish aristocrat. The fact that de Portago is in a relationship with Hollywood actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon, in a rather thankless role) is cleverly used by Enzo to generate publicity. But it’s the race results that count the most. Preparing for the Mille Miglia, an open-road race that was held between 1927 and 1957, Ferrari puts together a team of drivers that can win the race for the brand, which would help Enzo in his rivalry with Maserati and get him a financially stronger position in his negotiations with Fiat. The race goes well for Ferrari, until a horrific crash by de Portago that historically ended the Mille Miglia as a racing event, and effectively also ends the film.
The racing angle doesn’t come into play until late in the film, with the Mille Miglia sequences making up most of the last third of the film. Ferrari‘s main interest lies in its namesake and the relationships he has with the two women in his life, and by extension his sons. Dino’s death clearly weighs on his father, and one of Enzo’s visits to the family crypt provides Driver with the kind of material that wins awards, although moments later Cruz has an even better scene in the same location. Driver convinces despite a put-on and unnecessary Italian accent, although the makeup department didn’t quite succeed in making him look like the near 60-year-old Enzo of 1957. What strikes one most about Driver is actually his lumbering gait, cancelling out his stylish looks and immediately grounding the character’s humble beginnings. Driver handles Enzo’s demanding nature and his wit with equal aplomb; it is the scenes opposite Woodley’s homely Lina where he struggles the most, although he clearly dotes on his young son Piero. Why he loves Lina is less clear.
As his feisty and acerbic wife, Cruz is a scene-stealer, not in the least because Mann, together with writers Troy Kennedy Martin and Brock Yates, gives her most of the film’s funniest lines. The strong-willed Laura struggles with her son’s death in her own way, blaming Enzo, probably unfairly, for not doing enough. Cruz can show her acting talents across a wide range of emotions and will surely be in awards conversations just as much as Driver will. Other actors make less of an impression, mostly because their roles are underwritten. Woodley does what she can with the low-key Lina, an intelligent but introverted single mother whose main purpose is to get her son recognized by his father (this would not happen until Laura’s death in 1978; Piero Ferrari is now vice-chairman of the company).
Most of the events in Ferrari, in particular the domestic scenes, feel a bit like going through the motions of your average Oscar drama. These parts are well-made and handsomely acted but barely make a ripple, staying on the safe side of the track for the most part. Once the Mille Miglia gets going Mann finally gets a chance to show why many people’s ears still perk up when hearing his name, even when past his prime. The racing sequences are certainly the most exciting of the film, getting the adrenaline pumping. Although Mann’s direction and sense of framing and blocking is strong throughout, these are the moments he has a field day with, making the audience feel the speed and the danger the drivers exposed themselves to.
Ferrari‘s biggest flaw is in convincing an audience that specifically this part of Enzo’s life would make for a good biopic of a man who almost single-handedly created a brand recognized the world over. The love triangle between Enzo and the two women in his life is told with verve, but is at its heart a fairly standard melodrama that would be no more or less interesting if the characters were fully fictional. The name Ferrari alone doesn’t kick the story into the next gear, and the film mostly stays at a safe cruising speed. Ferrari is somewhat of a return to form for Mann, but is still well off his best work from the ’90s and early 2000s.
(c) Image copyright: Eros Hoagland