The first ten minutes of Michael Mann's ’50s-set Ferrari offer a wordlessly kinetic ode to industry: glossy racecars speed across open Italian tracks, stately trains glide into stations packed with anticipation, bedside phones jangle off hooks and onto nerves.
But then the dialogue begins, and this carefully engineered movie starts its downshift into neutral.
Though the movie is based on Brock Yates’ biography and Ferrari's own memoirs, Mann (Heat) narrows his focus to three months in 1957, when car magnate Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is facing bankruptcy. He’s already weighed down by a trifecta of personal burdens: the recent death of his beloved eldest son; a complicated double life with his mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley); and the all-encompassing grief and fury of his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz). And now, he's got competition from Maserati – also based in his hometown of Modena – stalking him both on and off the track.
Over the course of 130 measured minutes, Enzo slogs back and forth between his troubles. At home, Laura – with whom he started the business – gives him hell. Though she seems far sharper than Enzo, she has to spend most of her time reacting to every public dismissal and private rejection.
Lina is more compliant, but not much happier. She’d particularly like Enzo to acknowledge their young son as his heir, even if he’s not ready to tell the world about her.
Work is no easier. He needs outside money but can’t stomach outside influence. He wants more high-profile customers but can’t afford to make their cars. And most of all, he has to win some major races – like the infamously dangerous Mille Miglia – if he’s going to stay solvent enough to move any of his plans forward.
When the characters are quiet and the cars rev up, the film sparks with Mann’s signature visual style. Most of the time, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) and production designer Maria Djurkovic give us the muted grays and taupes of a highly masculinised, midcentury world. But Messerschmidt’s camera caresses the red curves and silver engines of Ferrari’s beautiful racecars, thrilling alongside them as they're pushed to their limits on narrow Italian lanes, and gaping in horror when those limits are tested too quickly.
Driver’s accent is toned down from the delirious heights of House of Gucci
Suitable surname aside, it’s hard to know why Mann cast Driver as a middle-aged Italian man who never has the chance to express himself. (Driver’s hesitant accent, toned down from the delirious heights of 2021’s House of Gucci, befits this seemingly uncentered character.) Enzo is cold and single-minded, but – the worst offense in a movie suffering from Great Man Syndrome – dull. He’s not passionate, just obsessive. He accepts the sacrifices of all around him as his due, without giving anything of himself.
Everyone in the story is condemned to circle his star, which emits neither light nor heat. As a result, actors like Woodley and Patrick Dempsey (as a swaggering racer) briefly drop in, offer their own gently-accented announcements, and swiftly fade away. Only Cruz makes an indelible impact, investing Laura with a sorrowful anger that feels both earned and true.
In general, Mann’s script (written with Troy Kennedy Martin) is as understated as his laconic protagonist. (Ferrari's big pep talk to one racer before the riskiest ride of his life: ‘You can do it. Take it easy.’) But with her mordantly outraged attempts to understand her alienated husband, Laura also inspires the film's rare – and rewarding – laughs. No matter how hard she pushes, not even she can figure out what’s actually driving Enzo.
Ferrari screened at the New York Film Festival. In US theaters Dec 25 and UK cinemas Dec 26.