Moviegoers would be forgiven for cringing at the thought of Adam Driver playing yet another eccentric, powerful Italian businessman after the questionable accent in House of Gucci. But, film lovers rejoice. The questionable accent is still there, but Driver’s latest foray into complex, womanizing Italian entrepreneurs, as the lead character in Michael Mann’s Ferrari, is far more respectable than the first. The film, focused on a particularly turbulent era in Enzo Ferrari’s later years, delivers a powerful emotional punch and successfully portrays a complex set of characters.
When the film opens sometime in the 1950s in the Italian state of Emilia-Romagna, Ferrari is a hyper successful car racer and manufacturer. He quietly leaves the home of his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley, in her first mature, touching performance) to make it to his permanent home before the maid serves the morning coffee, as he had agreed years prior with his wife Laura Ferrari (an Oscar-worthy Penelope Cruz).
At work, Ferrari encounters a series of challenges as well—mostly that his empire is under serious pressure and financial duress driven by the excesses on car racing and lack of emphasis on production. Italian competitor Maserati has broken a particular speed record and Ferrari is determined to best him, which quickly results in a tragic accident for his star driver.
As his work challenges unfold, we see Ferrari hire a new driver, Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), as part of a world-renowned team that includes racers played by Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey, in order to win the legendary “1,000 Mile Race” in Italy. This is part of Ferrari’s hope to put his brand back on top and expand sales a plan he hatches together with his otherwise estranged wife, who serves as a bridge between the two parts of the film along with Ferrari itself.
Ferrari sputters story and tone wise, particularly at the outset. Director Michael Mann and screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin temper most of their Italian excesses, but they are not always successful, and fall into the by now tedious trap of depicting Italians as ridiculous—exaggerated, indulgent, self-involved, grandiose, and unawares—from an American perspective. Those supporting cartoonish characters are ultimately unsatisfying, particularly in the hands of such talented actors as those amassed for this film.
But Ferrari hits the break, corrects course, and eventually accelerates into excellence. As the story develops, the complexity of Enzo and Laura’s relationship, as well as the true love between him, Lina, and his younger soon, become believable and convincing, and the attempt to win the race becomes enthralling. The glamor and glitter of the paparazzi that surround the “Commendatore,” as he is called, fade thankfully to the background. You may still wonder here or there why some phrases (“good morning,” “how are you,” “here are your keys”) are spoken in Italian, and the rest in a badly accented English. But Driver, Cruz, and Woodley pull you back stronger than those other gravitational forces, driving Ferrari to ultimate victory with their own powerful temperance.
Below the line, Ferrari hits all the right speeds as well. Daniel Pemberton’s score is unassuming and much quieter than the bombastic script. Editor Pietro Scalia is also a perfect fit—his experience in political biopics as well as with action or war films makes him particularly well-suited to the mix and match of biography and racing story that the film entails. Erik Messerschmidt provides beautiful cinematography of the Italian countryside, and the production and costume design are impeccable, classy, and not excessively flashy.
By the time the credits roll around, Ferrari’s engines fire on all cylinders, packing an emotional punch that sneaks up on you. Cruz and Driver put a lot of meat on the bones of the story, the suffering over the death of a child, the convenient as well as emotional partnership between them, the cynicism and the drive needed to succeed in the world of business and car racing. Cruz eschews the overly dramatic for the physical, and Driver delivers his lines with crescendo. Woodley, though, may be the biggest surprise, letting her eyes and face do most of her talking. All three of these characters end up being fundamentally sympathetic, which makes the ultimate conclusion of this chapter of their lives all the more effective.
Ferrari Was the Closing Night Film for the 61st New York Film Festival and will be released by Neon on December 25, 2023.