‘Ferrari’ Review: Adam Driver Plays Enzo Ferrari in Michael Mann’s Gripping and Masterful Drama

In Michael Mann’s heady, intricately dark, raptly absorbing “Ferrari,” there’s a quiet scene that takes place the night before the Mille Miglia, the spectacular 1,500-kilometer motorsport endurance race. Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), the Italian sports-car magnate who needs to win the race (the survival of the company that bears his name depends on it), has five drivers who are scheduled to compete. In a kind of calm-before-the-storm ritual, several of them write notes to their romantic partners, telling them how much they love them, just in case they don’t survive the race.

This is no mere superstitious formality. In the Mille Miglia, the possibility of crashing and burning, as the cars zoom at 250 kilometers per hour through the open roads of Italy (and, at one point, right through the center of Rome), is all too real. That’s the ominous underside of racing’s power. The speed is thrilling because it represents a challenge to the universe, a chance for man to push up against and expand the boundaries that God gave him. You’d better believe that that fuel intake of freedom comes at a cost.

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The specter of death haunts the racing scenes in “Ferrari.” That’s part of their intoxicating charge. But it isn’t just the action that’s fraught with thrilling danger. Every moment of the drama moves with a sense of high-stakes dread, of underlying emotional turbulence. I don’t usually like or trust when people describe a film by declaring that it’s “like a ’70s movie,” because I have an instinctive aversion to reducing the qualities of the New Hollywood cinema to a kind of brand. But “Ferrari” really is like a ’70s movie. It has that intensity of grip, that layered human fascination, that cathartic honesty about what life is really about.

The entire film unfolds over three months of 1957, during which Enzo Ferrari is up against the ropes in almost every way you could imagine. Viewed from the outside, he’s a grand figure: a celebrity, a man who has created the most beautiful cars in the world and has used them to redefine Italy, where he’s regarded as a national treasure. Adam Driver, in carefully slicked-back gray-white hair, wearing a scowl of Machiavellian cunning, plays Ferrari as a tightly controlled force of nature, someone who knows that he has perfected a hurtling machine of great power, but can he steer it to victory? For it turns out that everything in Ferrari’s world is imploding.

He started out as an early champion race-car driver (the film opens with a scratchy black-and-white newsreel montage of ’20s car races, with Driver’s ebullient image inserted into it), and racing is what he still lives for. Ferrari, we learn, launched his company in 1947, amid the ruins of postwar Italy, and a decade later the sale of Ferrari’s “production cars” — the candy-colored sports vehicles, shaped like sexy alien bodies, that he sells to everyone from wealthy civilians to Jordan’s King Hussein — are what finance the racing. But Ferrari, an artisan company, isn’t selling or making enough cars; it’s down to 100 a year. Enzo’s business manager, Cuoghi (Giuseppe Bonifati), tells him that to survive he’s got to sell 400 cars a year, and the only way he can do that is to attract a major outside investor (possibly Henry Ford II), and the only way he can do that is to win the Mille Miglia. As Enzo himself observes, “You win on Sunday, you sell on Monday.”

The chaotic state of Ferrari’s business affairs is linked, financially and spiritually, to the turmoil of his personal life. He launched the business with his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), in his hometown of Modena, where the two still live. But their marriage is now a cold shell. The film takes place one year after the death of their son, Dino (who succumbed to muscular dystrophy at 24), and that tragedy destroyed whatever was left of their intimacy. Laura knows that Enzo sleeps around, but like many who say they “accept” that sort of thing, she’s in a submerged rage about it; early on, there’s a scene where she takes the gun he gave her for protection and shoots it at the wall behind him. And Laura doesn’t even know about Enzo’s greatest secret.

He’s got a mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), as well as a 12-year-old son, Piero, he had with her during the war, and they are basically his second family, fused with more affection than the first. But as the boy approaches his confirmation, Lina wants to know: Will his last name be hers…or Ferrari’s? Will Enzo publicly acknowledge his son? Ferrari is trying to hold the pieces of his life together, but as the movie goes on those pieces crash together and fall apart. Cruz, in a sympathetically daring performance, plays Laura as a washed-out wraith of vengeance. When she discovers Enzo’s other life, through bank records, the film becomes charged with domestic suspense. Laura owns half the Ferrari company, which gives her a lot of leverage, but she’s using it to battle a combination of tragedy and fate. Will she sign over her half of the company so that Enzo can make a deal? Or will she cash the check for half a million she’s demanded from him and bring the whole thing crashing down?

Mann, working from a superb script by the late Troy Kennedy Martin, stages this story with a masterly intrigue rooted in a lavish authenticity about everything from racing to business to marital discord. It’s like watching “Grand Prix” fused with “The Godfather.” Early on, there’s a scene that sets the stakes and lets us know what sort of man Ferrari is. In the throes of competition with his arch-rival Maserati, he’s at the track, timing one of his racers, when something locks in the car mechanism and the tube-shaped vehicle, just like that, flips into the air and crashes; the driver is dead. (And this was during a practice run!) Does Ferrari feel a twinge of guilt about it? No, as he explains, it was all the fault of the driver’s mother, who pushed him into dating above his class (his posh girlfriend was at the track). This confused him and resulted in the accident.

What’s noteworthy about that cut-and-dried response is how utterly Ferrari believes it. For him, speed is a religion, the breaking of barriers like going to the moon. It’s a higher calling that requires devotion and sacrifice. The Ferrari we see lives a life of arrogant and almost holy entitlement, yet it’s not as if he’s simply some cad. He’s got a vision. He’s the coach of his racing team and knows how to cultivate each member, from his new Spanish driver Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone) — replacing the one who was killed — to the ace British daredevil Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell) to the veteran “silver fox” Piero Taruffi (a sly-dog performance by Patrick Dempsey), who has stuck around as long as he has because he’s the best.

Mann casually immerses us in the late-’50s period detail, from the elegant dowdy décor to the pre-media-culture press conferences that take place on the fly in parking lots. And he cues us, in every scene, to the welter of thoughts and feelings that are swimming around behind Ferrari’s cool mask of a face. That’s what makes the film so supple and compelling — the way so much of it happens just under the surface. Credit the ace acting of Driver, Cruz, and Woodley (as a proto-feminist who’s tired of playing the adoring mistress), as well as Mann’s singular ability to interlock the film’s crises like hidden depth charges of drama.

Mann, of course, is also a fantastic technician, and his staging of the Mille Miglia is beyond exciting — he turns the race into a zooming cross-country odyssey of fate that sears itself into your imagination. The red-and-white cars are flecked with grime, and as the race goes on they start to show the wear and tear, with broken axles and transmissions; one wrong turn into the grass and a racer has probably wrecked his chances. The climactic cataclysm, and one that helped to define the Mille Miglia, is a total fluke: De Portago’s car runs over a small object on the road, slashing his tire, and what happens after that is suck-in-your-breath horrific and (thanks to the way that Mann has set it up) worthy of tears. The dramatic grandeur of “Ferrari” is that is doesn’t make racing, or life, look any easier than it is. The movie is about winning, but it’s also about the price you have to pay.

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