Saturday, January 13, 2024

Life, Death, Speed and Passion: Michael Mann's "Ferrari" is a Winner

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari
This past week I went to see Michael Mann's latest film without reading the reviews first. Ferrari! I had watched the trailer and knew I needed to see it, having fallen in love with Italy last spring, and being a longtime fan of Penelope Cruz. Being a lifelong racing fan added to my confidence that I would not be disappointed. And I wasn't. 

The film opens with black and white footage of race cars from what must be the 1920s, the camera close up on the grinning face of a young man driving as fast as he can. That smile... exactly the expression on my face the first time I raced in a stock car. We know the man in the film is Enzo Ferrari, who would one day establish Ferrari as one of the most desired brands in the world for its elegance, performance and history. 

This is not, however, a racing film per se. It's a very human story with combustible emotions and tragic flaws. 

Adam Driver is the embodiment of Enzo Ferrari, the fiery founder of the iconic automobile brand, while Penelope Cruz smolders as Laura, his fiercely loving, yet deeply frustrated wife. The film, like a high-octane race across Italian landscapes and tumultuous decades, plunges us into the heart of Ferrari's world, where ambition and passion threaten to consume him.

The film is an exploration of a complex man driven by obsession, though beneath the steely exterior is an inwardly vulnerable human being full of irreconcilable emotions. Driver captures this duality of Enzo Ferrari who is, on one hand, a visionary, pushing the boundaries of automotive engineering and creating coveted symbols of speed and luxury. On the other, he is an obstinate businessman, haunted by the death of his son and consumed by a hunger for validation. 

The problem many people seem to have with this film is not the film itself, because the script by Troy Kennedy Martin and Brock Yates is (in my opinion) flawless. Rather, the problem is that Driver delivers this duality with serious subtlety, conveying both the chilling charisma of a titan and the vulnerability of a man crippled by grief and even fear. He's already lost a son and is on the verge of losing the Ferrari enterprise as well.

Cruz stands tall beside him as Laura, a woman whose resilience and fiery spirit match Ferrari's own. Their relationship is a tempestuous dance of love, defiance, and betrayal, reflecting the emotional toll of life in the fast lane. Their simmering tensions and explosive arguments crackle with raw emotion, highlighting the price of living in the shadow of a legend.

What's amazing is how much of the story is told in the very brief opening scenes. First we see young Enzo racing, then we cut to a morning bedroom. The man is waking, a woman beside him still half asleep. He rises, dresses and we note that the woman is not Penelope Cruz, though we do not yet know who she is. Cut to: Enzo enters his home in Reggio Emilia a moment later his wife Laura enters the room holding a gun, gives him a dressing down and fires a shot past the left of his head. Message is clear: "Do I have your attention? We had an agreement." 

The gun in Laura's hand immediately brought to mind Chehov's rule about guns. Don't bring a gun into the play unless you intend for it to go off. It doesn't take long for Mann (or Laura) to settle that question.

The scene indeed gets your attention, setting up the roiling undercurrent of Ferrari's personal life. In addition to wrestling with the personal crises he's grappling with, he is also being forced to face up to the potential bankruptcy of the Ferrari factory.  

Michael Mann directed the film and I cannot imagine any other setting that would have worked. The story required being filmed on location.  Nothing captures Italy's allure like those sun-drenched Italian landscapes, manicured trees and gleaming race circuits. Mann went out of his way to capture the feel of 1950s Italy, much of it still there today. On my Italy trip I passed through Reggio Emilia where the Ferarri's home was located. At one point I'd hoped to visit the Ferrari factory while being so near, and would have had I known this film was in the works. Alas. 

Though he knew he was on the verge of bankruptcy, he also knew that winning a major race like the thousand mile Mille Miglia would re-ignite interest in the vehicles he was producing, hence the third component of this story. Racing!

Racing has always been a risky business, but it's unbelievable that back in the fifties they didn't have roll cages or any of the safety features we find on today's cars. Ferrari himself understood the game from first hand experience. He'd also lost friends. He knew both the risks and rewards of the sport.

What makes it a near perfect film is the weaving together of these various strands so that the racing sequences, as well as his philosophical admonitions to the drivers, become a metaphor for Ferrari's internal struggles. I look forward to reading the screenplay some day.

Some might say the film is a meditation on the seductive yet destructive nature of obsessions. I think it's more than that, but for sure it does show how greatness has a sometimes soul-crushing cost.

The reviews at are mixed. I suspect that in some cases it's due to the expectations people brought to the film. Here are some of them, with the ratings the reviewers offered:

Brilliant characterisation impressively Italian.      10

This film has some serious flaws.      5

7 1/2 stars really… Penelope Cruz was amazing.          8

Not one of Michael Mann’s best movies but still solid.         6

I was expecting more….      5

Stylish biopic with strong characters and great performances.       9

A lot of missed potential.       6

My favorite of the “Ferrari” movies.        8

Very disappointing.       4

A palpable emotional drama.       8

Intense, vibrant and emotional movie.       10

A misfire on all 12 cylinders.       1

One reviewer said the film lingers long after the credits roll. I agree. I've been thinking about it all week. I have but one regret. That I didn't follow through last April on that inner tug to take a day trip to the Ferrari factory in Maranello while staying in Parma. If I could do it all over again I would have added one additional day to that trip of a lifetime.  

MUCH more can be said here, but this is were I sign off. 

Related Links

Where was Ferrari filmed? Uncovering the real Enzo Ferrari in Italy

16 Stories from My Italy Adventure

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