Michael Mann is back with his first feature directorial effort after eight years with Ferrari, a biopic depicting the life of Enzo Ferrari. Based on the biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine by motorsport journalist Brock Yates, the project had previously been in development hell since 1991 when the rights to the novel were bought by US-based Penta Pictures. Mann wasn’t brought on board until 2010, but it still took the prolific filmmaker years to find funding. Now, the Adam Driver-led picture is finally here and is being released by notable indie distributor NEON, which begs the question: Is Ferrari worth all the decades of fuss?
The story begins during the summer of 1957 when Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) finds himself in a dire crisis. The factory that he and his wife Laura Ferrari (Penelope Cruz) built is on the verge of bankruptcy. This forces Enzo to rethink the approach to his car manufacturing business. He soon realizes that in order to sell more cars, his drivers must win races and prove the brand to the world. Enzo then sets his sights on the next big event, the Mille Miglia – an open-road one-thousand-mile race across Italy – with the goal of winning no matter the cost. He must succeed, or Ferrari the company is no more.
Meanwhile, with bankruptcy looming, Laura goes snooping into Enzo’s financial books where she discovers a link to a small town outside of Modena. Her investigations brew new drama for Enzo as it’s soon revealed that he’s been intimately involved with a woman named Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley) for years.
Michael Mann’s racing drama is equally sleek and messy, there is a lot to love but also much left to be desired. Having a big budget and one of the best working cinematographers today, the Oscar-winning Erik Messerschmidt (Mank), one would expect Mann’s latest to be among his best work. Yet, Ferrari often feels visually disjointed. Barring Mann’s signature taste for fierce close-ups, Messerschmidt’s shot composition appears almost uninspired; the visuals on display make for a confused mix of drone footage and weirdly angled car-mounted shots. The saving grace comes with some exceptional lighting and a few dynamic tracking shots.
The world of 1957, the time wherein Ferrari is set, feels lived-in and authentic on the other hand. Production designer Maria Djurkovic does a fantastic job reimaging ’50s Italy with the on-location Modena sets and the gorgeous interiors built for the movie. Likewise, Italian costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini breathes vital life into Ferrari with his vibrant wardrobe pieces. There is never a second where one questions the colorful, yet often harsh realities on-screen. The aesthetics of 1950s Italy are thoroughly felt and even Erik Messerschmidt contributes to that with stylistic lighting, but it’s just a shame how a few uncanny choices in the cinematography can overshadow this excellent work.
In addition to this, Pietro Scalia’s editing really doesn’t help as it’s equally incoherent. Multiple instances of strange jump cuts plague Ferrari. These somewhat chaotic creative choices distract the audience from becoming fully submerged in Mann’s cinematic landscape. Adam Driver’s thrilling performance makes up for this though. He is totally engrossing as the titular character and delivers as an actually believable Italian, unlike his turnout in 2021’s House of Gucci.
Adam Driver is stern, yet likable while Penélope Cruz plays the most unlikable character in the story, his wife. But screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin tries to give reasons for that in his script as the viewer becomes attached to Ferrari and his so-called new family with Lina Lardi. Ferrari gives glimpses into his failing marriage and how Enzo’s life would be much better if he were to divorce Laura. Occasionally, this is presented more sympathetically rather than empathically which is a bit odd.
The film establishes Ferrari as a man with many sides from the get-go. Enzo is great with his son and Lina, cold to his wife Laura, and full of hatred towards the press, but most prominently, 100% committed to operating the best racing car company in the world. Mann’s biopic merely works as a minute exploration into the life of Enzo Ferrari, it’s not very expansive and doesn’t seek to achieve too much beyond the basics of what’s written on the page. This isn’t the worst offense though it does leave the audience wanting more.
A lot has already been teased about the shocking nature of Michael Mann’s Ferrari. Be warned to those who are squeamish because there are multiple jaw-dropping moments of serious gore. Although some of the on-screen car crashes seem overtly staged, with the smaller ones being downplayed and the major crashes being over-dramatized, Mann himself has defended these depictions as accurate and as close to factual as what can be shown on film. These scenes do admittedly give the movie an extra layer of intensity and palpable stakes, though they sometimes seem a bit excessive when compared to the overall tone of the screenplay.
Ferrari will surely be a film that is liked by general audiences, but slightly detested by others. Nothing is unreasonably offputting about Mann’s first feature since 2015’s Blackhat. Beyond questionable creative choices and forced accents, Ferrari is quite riveting and the story is inherently engaging enough to keep spectators invested from beginning to end. Adam Driver is a force to be reckoned with as the Ferrari founder and is supported by an excellent ensemble, which also includes Jack O’Connell, Patrick Dempsey, Gabriel Leone, and Sarah Gadon.
This biographical piece will undoubtedly be talked about in the lead-up to the upcoming awards season, given the impressive list of creatives involved and the iconic status of the director behind such classics as Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, and Heat. The fact that it’s a biopic about an iconic figure of Italian history is a given as well. However, how far Ferrari can actually go might prove to be a race as unpredictable as those that Michael Mann brings to life on-screen.