In Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, another buzzy biopic released recently, the wife of the central “great man” is depicted as an elegant martyr. Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre, married to Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein, may never surrender to her life in the shadows, yet she still meets that fate with sagacity and strength. Felicia would find little kinship with Laura Ferrari (Penélope Cruz), the wife of the central “great man” in Michael Mann’s biopic on the Italian motor guru. Laura finds her husband’s genius has grown stale, so rages daily against it.
Her home is bare, save only for the shrill ringing of the telephone. There are men on the end of the line, making demands she’s not equipped to satisfy. But her husband, Enzo (Adam Driver), is away in the bed of another woman (Shailene Woodley, delivering the shakiest of the film’s accents). When he returns, she pulls a gun on him. It’s done wearily, a little casually. She misses, on purpose. Or so you hope.
This is an odd way to frame a biopic – to begin at a place of spiritual crisis, to see its subject frayed and scorned and with no feel for their glory. It turns Ferrari into an odd film, one about characters who roar and cry and see the darkness puddled at their feet, but who feel ultimately impenetrable.
Enzo is a human engine trying to stave off the rust, not unlike the many human engines that populate Mann’s previous work, from 1986’s Manhunter to his most recent, 2015’s Blackhat. We’re allowed only a momentary shot of Enzo in his prime – as a driver on the racetrack, eyes afire – before we speed past to 1957, in Modena, Italy. Drawing from Brock Yates’s 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine, screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin finds the Ferrari company on the verge of collapse, while Enzo mourns the loss of his son, Dino, to muscular dystrophy a year earlier. He chooses to tie his personal and private fortunes to the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race across Italy, and to his team of drivers: Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell), and Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey).
Early on, we see Enzo visit Dino’s grave. He talks of voices in his sleep and ghosts at his threshold – a confession shared by a man we do not know and must spend the rest of the film attempting to figure out. He is allowed to remain frustratingly elusive and measured in voice, while Driver skates along the same, slightly questionable accent as in 2021’s House of Gucci.
As thrillingly as editor Pietro Scalia constructs the film’s races, Mann’s camera trembles from the fury of these engines. The sound design is so overwhelming (and, in one scene in which shuffling feet nearly mask a quiet conversation between characters, occasionally odd) that it borders on unpleasant. A handful of grim, violent CGI crashes break the illusion of Mann’s practical, masterfully controlled worlds.
“It’s our deadly passion, our terrible joy,” Ferrari warns his drivers, but we’re never sure of what he possesses beyond soured dreams. Perhaps he’s a man imprisoned by thrill, who truthfully seeks boredom. Whatever the case, Ferrari drives determinedly in an uncertain direction.
Dir: Michael Mann. Starring: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Gabriel Leone, Jack O’Connell, Patrick Dempsey. 15, 130 minutes.
‘Ferrari’ is in cinemas from 26 December