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Film review: Michael Mann’s Ferrari struggles to unpack Il Commendatore

Mann’s 1950s racing action is surprisingly good, but big moments are too easily glossed over in this Enzo biopic

Published: 08 Sep 2023

In contrast to most motorsport films, Michael Mann’s Ferrari biopic is a dark, personal portrayal of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) at a tumultuous time for the man, his family business and motor racing in general.

The year is 1957 and Ferrari is in deep financial trouble – though not quite as deep as its Modenese neighbour Maserati. And yet, Maserati is still beating Ferrari out on track, Enzo’s wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) has many of the company’s assets in her name and their only son Dino died the previous year. Oh, and Enzo is also attempting to keep up a secret second family with his mistress Lina Lardi (played by Shailene Woodley with a questionable Italian accent) and son Piero, who Enzo is yet to publicly recognise.

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Mann’s depiction has promising beginnings. Now very much retired from racing himself, Enzo pushes his unassuming Peugeot 403 out of Lardi’s driveway to avoid waking his preferred second family, and a little later the Ferrari team sits uncomfortably through a church service as they are forced to listen to Maserati breaking the lap record at the nearby Autodromo di Modena. In this moment Mann perfectly sums up the importance of motor racing in Italy.

Unfortunately, the film never really kicks on from there. With the story adapted from Brock Yates’ excellent book Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine, we’re aware of what the narrative is hurtling towards, and yet by the time the 1957 Mille Miglia rolls around we have spent too much time focusing on a failed marriage – with the women in the film relegated to ‘insignificant other’ status – and don’t have a proper sense of who Driver’s Enzo really is.

He has battled with Laura over pretty much everything – infidelity, control of the company, his ability to negotiate a deal with Gianni Agnelli (Tommaso Basili) or the unseen-on-screen Henry Ford. He has battled with the press as they blame him for the death of Eugenio Castellotti, which we see on-screen with an excessive fling of a CGI’d human travelling through the air. And he has battled with his own drivers over what he perceives as a lack of commitment or bravery. Yet Driver – who reheats his accent from House of Gucci and is clearly too young to be playing a near-60-year-old Ferrari – doesn’t give us a sense that his character is bothered by any of these rifts. Most are simply glazed over, and we only get a hint of emotion as he awkwardly talks to Dino’s grave about seeing the ghosts of his father and brother. This is a film without much love and with a whole lot of loss, but the really big moments just don’t hit hard enough.

That’s perfectly exemplified by Alfonso De Portago’s (Gabriel Leone) fatal crash at the Mille Miglia – the climax of the whole plot. Sorry, spoiler alert, although it did happen 66 years ago. Unlike the comic-book style death of Castellotti, De Portago’s fate is visually harrowing. But once again Mann simply seems to speed past the sadness and resulting fallout and onto the next scene. Perhaps this was purposeful to show Enzo’s distance from his drivers, but we can’t help but feel the film is lacking personality as a result.

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The actual action before the accident is excellent, though. It’s clearly very tricky to transfer driving to film (we’re looking at you, Fast & Furious, Ford vs Ferrari and Gran Turismo with your phantom extra gears for overtaking) but Mann gives us some stunning shots of the Ferrari 315 S and its competitors with an excellent V12 soundtrack. More retro Mille Miglia action on film please! Our own personal fourth wall was slightly broken though by the presence of a certain Ben Collins playing Stirling Moss.

Scriptwriter Troy Kennedy Martin has also managed to squeeze in a couple of cringe-inducing clichés including “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” and the classic Enzo line “the ox must pull the cart”, but Enzo’s story itself certainly has enough going on to warrant a big screen adaptation and Ferrari is worth heading to see for the education.

There’s no dream motorsport ending here, though. No underdog success story or even any real recognition of Enzo’s own rags to riches narrative. In fact, there aren’t many moments of light in the weighty script and despite it being a personal portrayal of Ferrari, you don’t fully come out with a sense of the man.

Ferrari will be released in UK cinemas on 26 December

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