Review: Ferrari

Adam Driver stars as Enzo Ferrari. Photograph by Lorenzo Sisti / Courtesy Neon
Adam Driver stars as Enzo Ferrari. Photograph by Lorenzo Sisti / Courtesy Neon

Screen reviews by Christopher Gist

Master filmmaker and master car-maker collide

To appeal to broader audiences, Westerns often mixed romance, homesteads, and gun-play – sex and death. In biopic Ferrari director Michael Mann employs a similar mix of romance, family, and car-play as he reflects on Italian auto legend Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver). For the “romance”, the film examines Enzo’s relationships with wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley); for the action, it dramatises the trackside and financial risks attached to Enzo’s racing empire. Splitting its time in this way, the film works through several concerns: can Enzo keep his illegitimate son hidden from wife Laura, or will Lina get her way and have Enzo publicly acknowledge him; can Ferrari regain its world champion status; will the company survive bankruptcy; and, above all, who is Enzo?  

The great stuff includes an intimate sense of post-War Italy on its way to 60s La Dolce Vita, the “art-on-wheels” repro cars, the performances from the cast, and the impactful crashes. In fact, the devastating 1957 Mille Miglia (thousand mile race) crash that the film builds to evokes mortuary-room realism in its depiction of the damage. And I particularly enjoyed the “parallel action” moments where two events unfold simultaneously: Enzo and his men in church for Mass while at the nearby racetrack a car is being time-trialled. At the starter’s gun, the men in the church get out their stop-watches and start timing until they hear the pistol signal the end of the lap. This is, of course, sure-footed screen storytelling.

I also admired the way that the camera gets very close to its subjects because, in many ways, this is a close film. We are amongst the sheets in the bedroom, we travel through the air as drivers are flung cart-wheeling from their vehicles, we sit on Enzo’s shoulder as he cries to his dead son Dino in a mausoleum. We are also close to the devastation of WWII and its repercussions, seeing in flashback Enzo walking through the bombed-out remains of his factory, Lina there to tell him she is pregnant (the theme of sex and death again). It is flashback moments such as these that underline how familiar that generation was with mass destruction, partly explaining the attitudes to risk and death that everyone in Enzo’s team must have had or considered. While the repro vehicles are striking, the film also reminds us just how small race cars of the period were: sans all safety gear, and with unsophisticated braking, we get a real sense of how art-on-wheels became coffin-on-wheels.  

What’s trickier with this story is how well I felt I could know Enzo. This question of knowability is true with any biopic and, some would argue, is as true of real life. How well can any of us be known – as others have asked, if history has no shape, why should our lives? To this end, in interview at last year’s New York Film Festival, Adam Driver describes playing a version of Enzo, distinct from the many possible or real-life versions of Enzo experienced by others in various contexts and at various times.

Part of the difficulty is that I couldn’t quite land on what the central problem of the film was that matched Enzo’s central dilemma. Enzo is an engineer and, in some ways, an emotionally withholding man who rarely looks in the rear-view mirror. Grief is part of the picture, particularly for Laura who is locked in her own dark mausoleum of grief and anger over the death of their son Dino. But, for Enzo, when driver Castellotti crashes and dies early in the film, Enzo confides in his mistress Lina that he has built a wall in himself to weather such crises – otherwise, he could no longer move forward and he would have to quit. The ghosts can stay in the rear-view.

However, Mann and Driver’s Enzo is not an emotionally mute character. He says beautifully to Dino in the mausoleum that “There was a time I loved your mother beyond reason. She was a different creature then. But so was I. And I see you, too. Every moment I close my eyes. That face, your face, I want to see”. Elsewhere in examining Enzo, we see him being crafty with a journalist, pretending he’ll sell Ferrari to Ford in America so as to force more local Italian investment. We see his libidinous side (the script goes further than the film), and we see him trying to manage Laura and Lina in their respective spheres. We see him psychologically managing his drivers and his team to put all aside to win.

So, why did I sometimes feel we hadn’t quite got enough of Enzo’s insides outside? Is it because his lens often is cars, that many of his interactions with people are framed by engineering and motor racing? There’s a lazy joke to be had here about a one-track mind, but I don’t believe the film is at all saying the engineering mind is disconnected from emotion. Perhaps an example from the script explains some of the trickiness in fully accessing him. In this scene, Laura has discovered Enzo has been paying for a farmhouse at Castelvetro for Lina and their young son Pierro. Enzo does not know that Laura knows:

She looks up coldly. He goes to the sideboard, pours a glass of wine.

LAURA:  The whole of Emilia knows, but not me?

FERRARI: I thought it would break your heart.

LAURA: You broke my heart years ago, Enzo…

FERRARI doesn’t reply. And he doesn’t believe it, either. It was Dino who had broken her heart.

That final action line requires an enormous amount from the actor. As close and intimate as the film is, I don’t feel I can get that level of detail until it is expressed in dialogue. This is slippery stuff, but there is something nuanced about the emotional connective-tissue in Enzo’s unfolding journey that doesn’t quite glue me to the meaning of some of these moments, leaving me wondering if I’m getting as much about the character as is intended.

Perhaps, also, in cutting between family issues and racing issues, the momentum is broken, or we miss out on relationships being built in informative ways. While Maserati turns up as the main opposition to Ferrari, we don’t access Maserati owner Adolfo Oris in a way that deeply challenges or reveals Enzo. We hear the names of drivers on both teams and see various players, but my friend at the screening asked “who’s that again?” as some of these faces reappeared. Ten years before Ferrari, Ron Howard examined race drivers in Rush, looking at the famed rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Absolutely, Mann and Howard are very different filmmakers but, structurally, the Hunt-Lauda rivalry provided a central spine from which to consider the characteristics of these men and their talents. They butt heads over one thing, concentrating the jeopardy. By contrast, Mann’s tackling of Enzo’s life on a number of fronts leads to another kind of question about what film art is doing here: is it about solidifying the question more than the answer, “resolving” in “embrace the mystery”?

All of that said, I saw Ferrari a week ago at the cinema and a lot of it has stayed with me. It’s a collision of master filmmaker with master car-maker, and these are people who have known what it takes to succeed in a world of massive budgets, constant uncertainty, and significant rivalries. Mann’s late-career expertise is on show, and this is high-budget filmmaking. For these reasons, if the subject interests you, this is one to see at the cinema. The screenwriter, Troy Kennedy Martin, has Enzo say of engineering that, “when a thing works better, it is usually more beautiful to the eye”, and this is certainly a film that is beautiful to the eye.