Ferrari: Michael Mann’s Slick, Plodding Biopic Speeds and Sputters

5 mins read

Ferrari, Michael Mann’s moment-in-time biopic starring Adam Driver as an aging Enzo Ferrari in the 1957 crosshairs of heated personal and business dramas, is a sum of its parts picture enlivened by a thrilling recreation of the thousand-mile Mille Miglia car race, worth seeing on the big screen, and a smoldering Penelope Cruz as the magnate’s long-suffering spouse and business partner, Laura. Otherwise, the movie is stolidly self-contained in shuttling between wife and mistress, navigating a tanking business and dealing with the fallout from the fatal, very public race—fascinating stuff, sure, but when the dramatic pedal should be down, the picture keeps tapping the brakes with, at least for its first half, a sluggishly labored pace and surprisingly lethargic turn from Driver. 

Picture opens as Enzo Ferrari’s marriage to Laura—who co-built the 1929-founded company and now, post World War II—is hanging by a thread, Enzo himself sneaking back home after a night with his long-time mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley). He’s met by a pistol packing Laura who screams, “You have to be here before the maid arrives with the morning coffee! That was the agreement!” Laura means business, and while she claims not to care if her husband sleeps around, her fired warning shot is unmistakable.

Theirs is a fraught union, wracked with grief and pain over the tragic recent death of their twenty-four-year-old son, Alfredo, the family heir, whose demise Laura blames on her husband; the pair mourn at the family crypt, their marriage divided by a ghost. On the other side of town Ferrari keeps Lina as a sort of second family, with a secret son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese), who worships his father and whose mother would like him to have the Ferrari name. Laura knows nothing.

Ferrari, the company, is in jeopardy, its quality control spotty and Enzo focused elsewhere, primarily in preparing his racing team, and after the track death of a key driver, he enlists cocky racer Alfonso de Portago (Brazilian actor Gabriel Leone, with star quality) to turn things around, forging ahead and despite bad press, trained on winning more than build or safety. 

Those familiar with Ferrari history know a tragedy is impending, one that would forever alter races on Italian public roads, and the Mille Miglia contest is beautifully orchestrated here, though interrupted via crosscutting with pensive Enzo’s off-race drama; every time we return to de Portago and company the picture races to red, roaring life (and death). A spectacularly staged crash is the movie’s mic drop moment, a flash of heart-stopping, visceral finality masterfully shot by Erik Messerschmidt and edited by Pietro Scalia. 

Ferrari is by turns plodding (domestic quagmires and business affairs) and then furiously entertaining (the race); it’s like two films in one, and the second is far more arresting. When Mann, a superbly rigorous technical filmmaker, focuses on the propulsive mechanics of the race the picture practically flies off the screen; otherwise, there is a less than engaging, mezzo-mezzo quality, particularly in the first half, due in part to a miscast Driver in one of his less dynamic turns, largely removed and inaccessible.

On the other hand, Penelope Cruz walks away with the film, but one senses that her Laura—traumatized by anger and grief, all but abandoned and then finally, manipulatively vindicated in a sonic boom of rage and control, dominates the proceedings, and while she does not exactly deliver notes that she hasn’t in better films nor does Ferrari require her to stretch her repertoire, Cruz nonetheless gets the last word. Laura’s late picture discoveries and her resulting shrewd business demands to keep Ferrari’s livelihood afloat and her marriage’s public perception intact while honoring her deceased son, gives Cruz a chance to demonstrate why she was hired, a fiery dynamism missing in the rest of the film. 

2 1/2 stars

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