Ferrari: Michael Mann’s family melodrama spends too little time on the track

Michael Mann’s sports biopic starring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari is at its strongest when the engines are roaring on the racetrack, but the lion’s share of the running time is spent on the dynamics of the Ferrari family.

3 September 2023

By John Bleasdale

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Michael Mann’s Ferrari (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Venice International Film Festival 

Motorsports always hold the potential for tragedy, and this was never truer than in the early years of the sport when drivers and onlookers would die every year. As spectators, especially watching safely on a screen, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re all essentially waiting for the crash. These are the moments when slick success gives way to sudden horrific failure: failure at speeds that reveal how brutal metal and stone can be when in contact with flesh and bone. That’s what makes the daredevil drivers so sexy, glamorous, and potent. Such scenes are few and far between in Michael Mann’s Ferrari, but when they do arrive, Mann’s film comes alive with the spectacle of death. Unfortunately, what happens in between those terrifying moments is a melodrama that smacks more of the humdrum reliability of that other great name in Italian car manufacture, FIAT. This is a family runaround of a film, rather than the hoped-for Formula One racing machine. 

Adam Driver – with his pun-ready name – stars as Enzo Ferrari, a man whose sexy racing days are over. His car factory is on the verge of bankruptcy and his racing team is losing out to arch-rival Maserati. Ferrari is a grey-haired and cold fish, more akin to Jeffrey Wigand from The Insider (1999) than Mann’s heroes in films like Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Heat (1995). He mourns his son, whose grave he visits in the family tomb and has long conversations with – something we witness in a scene reminiscent of the 1976 spoof The Big Bus when a cemetery fills up with the bereaved communing with their loved ones.

Penélope Cruz as Laura Ferrari

He argues with his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), who also controls the company and lives in simmering conflict with Ferrari’s diminutive mamma, played by Daniela Piperno. The family is bound by mutual recrimination over the death of the son and in keeping with the biopic stodginess of these scenes, someone actually says: “The wrong boy died” a la Walk Hard (2007). Ferrari also has another family, out in the country with Lina (Shailene Woodley winning the least Italian competition) and a son who he is in a quandary about recognising as his own. She’s relatively relaxed about the situation, though the real drama is situated in whether Laura finds out, seeing as she holds both the purse strings and a loaded gun she keeps on a bedside table.

Adapted by Mann and Troy Kennedy-Martin from a book by Brock Yates, the film is reportedly a dream project of Mann’s – a phrase that never fails to make this reviewer flinch, redolent as it is with memories of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018). Mann’s interest is piqued whenever engines are roaring, or being discussed, or taken apart. The most convivial Enzo gets is when around the table with his drivers; it’s also the angriest, as seen when he senses a lack of the cutthroat determination necessary to win.

It’s baffling that Mann chooses to spend the lion’s share of the running time on the relatively uninteresting domestics and it doesn’t help that despite Cruz’s best efforts, the sparks just don’t fly between her and her badly miscast co-star. Driver is too young to play Ferrari and the hair and paunch are as unconvincing as that Italian accent which he only got away with in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, because we all thought it was a joke. There are certain touches – the camera placed close to the protagonist’s brow, the setup of the racing scenes – but these Mann-erisms, if you will, aren’t enough to maintain a consistent thrust.

And even the set piece race, the Mille Miglia, a gruelling and incredibly dangerous marathon road race, is poorly explained and unclear. It’s difficult to tell who is driving which car, which car belongs to which team and where they are headed (the race is a circuit of Brescia up to the north down to Rome and back to Brescia). The horrific aftermath of the 1957 race is likewise sped past as we head for the kind of endings that have become common with these films of corporate biography. We’re met with a list of dubious accomplishments in which financial success and brand recognition seem to be given more importance than the loss of human life. When one of the drivers on a phone call with Ferrari wants to say something about the tragic Mille Miglia crash – which resulted in the deaths of eleven people, including five children – Ferrari congratulates him on his victory and hangs up. The film does likewise. 

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