Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” begins with the buzz of race cars and tires spinning, as black and white newsreel footage captures a wild race in which the winner, Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), can’t help but smile as he speeds past the finish line.
It is one of the few times in the film where we see Ferrari smile.
The story picks up decades later in Italy in 1957, as Ferrari now sports white hair and begins the routine of a new day: sneaking out of the home of Lina, his mistress (Shailene Woodley), checking in with his barber for a morning shave, conversing with his bitterly jealous wife, Laura (Penelope Cruz), visiting the grave of his late son, Dino, and checking his watch.
News arrives that Maserati’s team has arrived and will compete against Ferrari’s crew in a cross-country race that begins at night and spans hundreds of miles.
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Ferrari is constantly staring at his watch – time and timing is everything. People are constantly dying around him- in addition to his Dino, who died of muscular dystrophy, Ferrari’s racers are sometimes victims of random occurrences, such as a gear shift malfunction or a mere protrusion in the road that leads to catastrophe.
As Ferrari instructs his team, “Two objects cannot occupy the same point in space at the same moment in time.” He’s talking about his approach to racing as much as his private life.
“Ferrari’ is a brooding, exciting epic. Enzo is an ideal pick for a protagonist of a Mann film, as “Ferrari” is entirely in line with the master filmmaker’s body of work: Enzo is a man possessed, allowing forward motion, discipline and a clear focus to keep him from slowing down.
Like Neil McCauley in “Heat” (1995), Will Graham in “Manhunter” (1986) and Vincent in “Collateral” (2004), Ferrari is a man of precision, who excels at his profession by sacrificing his personal life.
While Mann avoids a close examination of Ferrari’s interior life, note the moving opera sequence (yes, shades of “The Godfather”): while the main characters all watch and listen to the same opera, we see flashbacks of how they have all been affected by their fathers in varying ways.
Also, listen to the sound design, as we hear the vocals fill the opera house and, when we’re in for a tight shot of the singers, the sound is intimate and close. There is a level of film technique in all of Mann’s films that puts him on a master’s level of artistry.
Few directors are working at his level of film craft and storytelling.
Driver is playing Enzo as a no-nonsense creature of habit, both the villain and hero of his story. In a film career that is currently a mere 12 years old, Driver has worked with Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam, to name a few. Once again, Driver is perfectly matched with his director.
Cruz’s fierce performance is a true wonder, as she makes her character entirely sympathetic but almost frightening in her rage and distrust. Driver is the star but it’s Cruz’s movie – Laura is the only force on Earth that can match the controlled chaos of her husband.
Note how, in their first scene together, she casually tries to murder him. Later, consider the sad bitterness in her eyes when she tells her husband, “I find myself sharing my whole life with a woman I’ve never met.”
Patrick Dempsey, sporting an awesome head of white hair, has a supporting role as racer Piero Taruffi. Although Dempsey’s role is small, he makes an impression and is even listed in the end credits as one of the stunt drivers(!).
Although “Ferrari” is set in Italy with Italian characters, most of the cast is not Italian. It’s the most flawed thing about it, as some of the actors do a sensational job (Driver has a stylish affectation that is a joy to listen to), while others struggle and are sometimes hard to understand.
This is a very old-fashioned Hollywood trope (remember how everyone in “The Ten Commandments” spoke with a regal, vaguely British accent?), though at least this never devolves into the delicious camp of Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci.”
“Ferrari” is always compelling, whether depicting the roaring drama on the racetrack or the title character’s messy domestic life – being a father to the child of his mistress, while his wife mourns the death of Dino.
Mann’s staging of even simple scenes has an artist’s precision. The frame is always filled with beauty, whether we’re looking at an Italian countryside or two people in a room talking about finances.
Mann hasn’t made an apology or a celebration of Enzo Ferrari but something in between – we share Mann’s fascination with him. In the end, “Ferrari” is about the anguish of feeling like a failure as a parent, as Enzo couldn’t save Dino and is a father figure to drivers who put themselves in great danger for him.
In the end, Ferrari’s efforts to be a father to Piero, the son he shares with Lina, will be among his greatest accomplishments.
Seeing this twice is essential, as the first time is about keeping up with the film, while a second viewing makes the dramatic weight, importance of the characters and connecting plot points even clearer.
This is the best film of 2023.