It’s hard to pin down movie biopics these days. For every decades-spanning examination like ROCKETMAN or THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, you get truly truncated takes like JACKIE (showcasing the weeks after JFK’s assassination) or even a weekend (Princess Diana’s last Christmas with the Windsor’s). Now, with FERRARI, filmmaker Michael Mann has delivered a film bio that feels less like an examination of Enzo Ferrari the man, and more like a focus on the Ferrari brand. Ostensibly, a 1957 sports drama, it keeps Enzo at arms-length, suggesting that his core cares mostly about his cars.
Thus, it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. Enzo (Adam Driver) is shown to have a marriage with Laura, a fiery woman (Penelope Cruz) that has deteriorated into a relationship where their truest connection is over their mutual ownership of the Ferrari car company. Enzo also has a mistress named Lina (Shailene Woodley) with whom he spends most nights, not to mention a child named Piero (Guiseppe Festinese) with her, but his connection with them both feels perfunctory. And even though Italy idolizes him as a former racing champion, let alone a mid-20th-century business celebrity, Enzo seems dismissive of his adoring public. Does Mann want us to admire this guy? Like him even? Let alone root for him?
We’re asked to root for his cars, for sure, all five of them participating in the film’s big climactic race across the picturesque countryside of Italy, all to shore up his company’s rep with the hopes of saving it from bankruptcy, but a movie biography should require a bigger investment that cheering on machines. And despite the superb production values that Mann delivers throughout, from Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous cinematography to Maria Djurkovic’s elaborate production design to the committed acting, starting with Adam Driver’s focused performance, it’s difficult to fully engage with a story that feels so shallow.
The stakes may be that Enzo needs a victory to ensure solvency, but will that make him a more caring human being? A more present husband, lover, or father? Someone who can enjoy life and perhaps even crack a smile? Truly, I’m not sure if Driver grins and shows his wide smile even once in the film. For a film chock full of passionate Italian types, it’s hard to believe the film feels so cold.
The one wholly vivid performance is that of Penelope Cruz who is extraordinary in the film. As Enzo’s long-suffering partner, she conveys all of the hurt, anger, frustration, and still begrudging love coursing through her veins. Cruz is plain-Janed down in almost every scene and yet she’s still the most gorgeous woman in cinema these days. Perhaps the film would’ve come off less chilly if we were asked to cheer for her more than his mistress or his autos. (It doesn’t help that the usually terrific Shailene Woodley is so lackluster here.)
When the cars rev for the big race in the third act, the film comes alive and creates a half-hour of cinema that is intense and involving. The roaring sound design, the precise editing, and the insinuating sense of danger in the score are sublime and lift the film demonstrably. But then Mann keeps cutting back to Enzo striding about in his perfectly tailored suit, coolly responding to virtually every tense moment of the race, barely breaking a sweat considering this is his all-or-nothing gamble. Even when disaster strikes late in the race, the devastation barely seems to register with the man. And again, his concern seems to wholly be his company and the pending press fallout, not any human toll.
FERRARI is based upon the Brock Yates book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, the Races, the Machine, adapted fitfully by Troy Kennedy Martin, but that title tells us all of the problems that this beautifully-rendered but ultimately shallow telling will hold. When three of the four subjects of a movie bio are about things, it’s no wonder humanity gets lost. The film looks fantastic, but it’s headed in the wrong direction from the start.