9 Jan 2024

Review: Ferrari

From Widescreen, 12:57 pm on 9 January 2024

Penélope Cruz supercharges Michael Mann’s tribute to 20th century racing car culture, says Dan Slevin.

Still from the 2023 Michael Mann biopic Ferrari featuring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari.

Photo: Roadshow Films

The script for Ferrari has been hanging around for a long time. The writer, Troy Kennedy Martin (The Italian Job) died fourteen years ago. For director Michael Mann it has been a passion project for decades but somehow one of our most celebrated filmmakers (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Collateral) doesn’t have the ability to just make whatever he wants.

You can get an insight about how complex the dealmaking required to get even a middle-of-the-road period drama like Ferrari made is to count the number of producers – over 50 of them. Compare that with a film like Ed Zwick’s Glory which won a couple Oscars back in 1990. It has just one – Freddie Fields.

Martin’s well-tooled script – based on the 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Car, the Races, the Machine by Brock Yates – wisely departs from the huge scale of the book as well as the huge title. It focuses on a relatively brief period in the life of Ferrari (Adam Driver) as financial worries jeopardise the existence of his company and marital woes threaten his domestic life.

Still from the 2023 Michael Mann biopic Ferrari featuring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari.

Photo: Roadshow Films

It's 1957 and Ferrari is engineering high performance racing cars – selling road vehicles is the secondary activity that funds the first – but the team is running out of money. Half the company and all of the factory is owned by Enzo’s wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and he needs her shares if he is to get the new investment required to save the business.

This is complicated more than somewhat by the fact that they are both grieving the loss of their son Dino from illness and that there is an illegitimate second son, Piero, being raised by Enzo’s mistress Laura (Shailene Woodley). The jousting between Driver and Cruz during these negotiations are almost as exciting as the motor racing.

Still from the 2023 Michael Mann biopic Ferrari featuring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari.

Photo: Roadshow Films

Winning the famous Mille Miglia, a wild round trip road race between Brescia and Rome and back, was going to be key to the continued existence of Ferrari organisation – he couldn’t afford to lose to Maserati – but Mann’s film also makes clear that this race is the end of a motorsport era. Television cameras were going to bring in bigger audiences and big money sponsors but also bring the danger into everyone’s living rooms.

For quite a while I found watching Ferrari quite frustrating. There is an opening sequence of Enzo racing his own car in the 1920s and it mixes genuine archive footage of the time – some clearly converted to YouTube quality video rather than the original film elements – and closeups of Driver as Enzo in the cockpit, treated to look like archive film. But that makes no sense as there’s no way that an actual camera would or could ever be mounted there! And don’t start me on the Italian accents and how sometimes the voices on the radio would be speaking Italian and sometimes not.

If a film is losing me to that extent early on, it takes a heroic effort to bring it back, but Ferrari does, and it’s largely due to Cruz simmering away in her grief and her rage, still loving Enzo but being driven mad by his disregard for her.

Still from the 2023 Michael Mann biopic Ferrari featuring Penélope Cruz as as Laura Ferrari.

Photo: Roadshow Films

Driver is his usual fine self as Enzo. I was pleased that it was the portrait of a demanding man rather than a tyrant but seeing as the whole project required the approval – and more than a few museum piece vintage cars – of the Ferrari company and the real Piero that’s probably to be expected.

Ferrari builds powerfully to its climax, going up through the gears if you will, and by the end you realise that you have been given the clues to the finale throughout – they hurtle towards you by the final act – emphasising Mann’s quality cinematic engineering.

Ferrari is rated R16 for graphic injury detail, offensive language & sex scenes and is playing in cinemas all over New Zealand.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Widescreen

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)