Racing movies typically make for a fun time at the theater. Think “Rush,” Ron Howard’s moving 2013 Formula One drama starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, or “Ford v Ferrari,” the energetic 2019 blockbuster from James Mangold led by Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Those films follow sympathetic characters through affecting passages of drama off the racetrack that are interspersed with thrilling sequences of action on it. They are crowd-pleasers, and very good ones at that.
“Ferrari,” the new biopic about auto legend Enzo Ferrari by veteran director Michael Mann, is not that type of racing movie, however. Working from the late Troy Kennedy Martin’s somber screenplay, Mann — whose credits include “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans” — reinterprets the genre to present not a rousing spectacle of struggle and victory, but rather a solemn reflection on a powerful, flawed man’s travails in his work and family. Though a more narratively rich execution might have made it a stirring one, “Ferrari” is an engaging film fueled by the intense lead performances of Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz and its director’s signature command of hard-hitting action.
Mann’s biopic distinguishes itself by rejecting cradle-to-grave sweep for a tight focus on a single year in the life of its subject instead. That year is 1957, and it finds 59-year-old Enzo Ferrari (Driver) in crisis both professionally and personally. His sports car manufacturer is bleeding money and needs to significantly increase sales of its consumer cars to stabilize its finances. Enzo realizes that he can only make this business move by entering his company’s racing team in the prestigious Mille Miglia, an open-road, 1,000-mile race across Italy. Winning the race, he calculates, will earn Ferrari the rejuvenated appeal it desperately needs to drive vehicle sales and save itself from dissolution.
Much of the film is dedicated to Enzo and his drivers’ preparation for the Mille Miglia and the events of the race itself. Underlying the adrenaline of the racing, however, is the hostile passion of the relationship between Enzo and his wife and business partner, Laura (Cruz). The fiery dynamic between the two strong-willed characters is at the core of the film, rooted in their inability to console each other over the recent death of their only son and Laura’s attempt to reckon with Enzo’s incessant infidelity. In opposition at the start, the warring spouses only become further entrenched over the problems of a failing business and an illegitimate son as the film unfolds.
Given that the interpersonal action between Enzo and Laura is so integral to its plot, “Ferrari” was bound to succeed or fail on the shoulders of its leads. Thankfully for Mann and his audience, Driver and Cruz both turned in fervent performances that carry the film to dramatic effectiveness.
Driver strikes an imposing figure as the Italian titan of sport and industry who was reverently referred to as “Il Commendatore,” or “The Commander,” a title that suggests Enzo’s dignified position in mid-century Italy. Donning a trench coat and black shades, Driver stalks along the racetrack and watches the drivers operate Ferrari’s machines with a stone-faced gaze, physically embodying Enzo’s domineering influence over his prized creation. Behind this grave disposition, however, is a vulnerable side to the man that Driver convincingly develops from the very start of his character’s arc.
While Driver’s performance as Enzo is undoubtedly impressive, anyone who watches “Ferrari” will almost certainly identify Cruz as putting forth the most powerful piece of acting in the film. The actress captures all the sorrow and anger of losing a child and living with an unfaithful partner in her portrayal of Laura, dominating each scene with a wrenching display of emotional woundedness. A highlight comes when the grieving mother visits her son’s tomb. She arrives at the cemetery just as her husband is leaving, storming past him without a glance in a march driven equally by sadness and rage. Once inside the mausoleum, Laura approaches her son’s portrait and stares at it unblinkingly, Mann holding a long close-up of Cruz’s face as tears slowly well in her eyes and drip down her grimacing smile. Using no language, Cruz manages to evoke immense sympathy through her silent, devastating power of expression. The rest of the actress’ aching performance spills out of this moment, leading her through trials that showcase Laura’s keen survival instinct as a strong woman living in her husband’s overbearing shadow.
As for the film’s racing scenes, Mann does justice to the bracing power of a Ferrari automobile by shooting clear, stylishly restrained sequences of on-the-road action that fix the viewer’s fascination on the superior handling of the cars, not the filmmaking. He cuts deftly between close-ups of drivers switching gears and wide shots of the iconic red cars winding through the Italian countryside, tapping the talents of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”) and editor Pietro Scalia (“Black Hawk Down”) to shape the racing sequences’ visual dynamism.
The ultimate effect of Mann’s cinematic take on the horsepower-crazed sport is one of ultra-realism. “Ferrari” may not feature the most spectacular vehicular action, but in terms of bringing audiences under the hood to experience the pinpoint engineering and brutal physics demanded by auto racing, most other films in the genre cannot compete.
That said, aforementioned films like “Rush” and “Ford v Ferrari” do outstrip Mann’s offering in one crucial department: narrative thrust. While “Ferrari” boasts robust acting and precise camerawork in service of Enzo and Laura’s compelling story, these separate elements never fully congeal to entirely draw the audience into the cascading stakes of the characters. Scenes stop and start with scant dramatic or thematic force connecting them, a narrative shortcoming that is most pronounced when the Mille Miglia race, the centerpiece of the story, abruptly begins without any buildup of anticipation. The anticlimactic scene is of course excellently acted and handsomely shot, but its lack of emotional kick diagnoses the limiting factor of Mann’s otherwise well-crafted film.
“Ferrari,” unlike the best racing movies, is perhaps more admirable than it is enjoyable.
Jack Torpey '24 (he/him) is an Arts and Culture Editor. He writes film reviews for the Reel Critic column.
Jack is studying English with a minor in Film and Media Culture. Outside The Campus, he works as a peer writing tutor at the Writing Center and is a member of the Middlebury Consulting Group.