Ferrari Slips a Gear

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon.

Ferrari is constantly porpoising. This relatively new term in racing means a swift rise then decrease in downforce which causes cars to go down then rise up. The result is an unpleasant ride with an all-around loss of performance. Despite many parts seeming in place, Ferrari loses a lot of its potential as the movie goes on. Good moments are immediately followed by bad ones causing the quality of the picture to constantly rise and fall.

This biopic is meant to capture a moment in the life of Enzo Ferrari—specifically, 1957 when the company he founded is bordering on bankruptcy and about to undertake the Mille Maglia. Winning this 1500km race will help secure the future of the Ferrari business. However, complicating matters are Enzo’s relationships with his estranged wife, his mistress, and illegitimate child, not to mention haunting recollections of his dead son.

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon. A crowd clogs the street as Enzo Ferrari makes his way through, police clearing the way and reporters vying for attention.
Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon.

Ferrari wants to be a drama about people pulled apart by love and mourning. Yet it also wants to be a business thriller about a scrappy underdog avoiding bankruptcy. Meanwhile, director Michael Mann adds the zest of zippy car races to reenergize the film between heavier dramatic portions. Though the recipe could work, this cacio e pepe ‘en vessie’ just doesn’t come together.

Scattered throughout are glimpses of other individuals. Yet, whatever importance they have historically or narratively is lost as Ferrari largely ignores them. It often seems as if filmmakers expect audiences to already know certain background details going in.

This is especially obvious when Enzo or others casually reference race car drivers famous in that era. Although the audience can easily conclude the names have significance what it means when someone says, “He drives like so-and-so,” is largely meaningless. It’s like saying somebody plays jai-alai like Joey Cornblit. Perhaps I’m simply admitting my own ignorance here, but these names are meant to elicit a sense of a racer’s style, giving a character depth, only without better context the film isn’t relaying relevant information.

Patrick Dempsey as Piero Taruffi in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon. Silver haired Patrick Dempsey sits in a red racecar bearing the Ferrari logo, a horse rearing up on its hindlegs.
Patrick Dempsey as Piero Taruffi in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon.

Most of the movie’s attention fixates on the main characters. Enzo Ferrari, his estranged wife Laura, and mistress Lina Lardi are each portrayed by Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, and Shailene Woodley. The Ferraris come across with wonderful subtlety and fiery passion depending on the scene. Driver does a marvelous job of conveying a person straining to remain stoic while his world crumbles around him. Penélope Cruz is captivating in every moment on screen. Shailene Woodley is fantastic at reminding audiences why we don’t often see her in major movies anymore. Although her inconsistent Italian accent is distracting, her dull recitation of lines gives audiences opportunity to hit the concessions stand or bathroom when her main monologue starts.

Another star of Ferrari is naturally the vehicles themselves. The production crew did a phenomenal job producing these antique sports cars. Michael Mann does an excellent job of capturing high performance racers zooming around tracks or through the majestic countryside. These are some of the most magnificent parts of the film. At risk of spoilers, crashes occur which are terrifyingly depicted giving a certain gravity to the Mille Maglia. Something the film squanders by never really fleshing out the drivers risking their lives.

Still, despite superb work depicting racing, distracting camera choices abound. For instance, at one point the focus is on Ferrari’s ear while he weeps at his son’s grave before cutting to Driver’s grief-stricken face. Whatever Michael Mann is trying to convey is hard to figure since it seems like someone unsure where to point the camera. And these moments pop up often enough, one only assumes an attempt at artistry is occurring because of his track record. Or perhaps the blame is poor editing.

Daniela Piperno and Penélope Cruz as Adalagisa and Laura Ferrari in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon. Penélope Cruz in a silk nightgown storming down a hallways, her mother-in-law dressed in black getting out of her way.
Daniela Piperno and Penélope Cruz as Adalagisa and Laura Ferrari in Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Lorenzo Sisti. Owner EF Neon.

Ferrari is littered with several awkward cuts. The camera drops, losing sight of performers then the scene jumps to a different moment or angle. If intentional, it only serves to distract. If it’s a flaw, it should never have been in the final cut.

That said, Ferrari mainly falters from trying to introduce too many ideas. Consequently, it never knows what narrative threads it needs to tie together. The films wants to have an overarching metaphor but can’t cement one though it clumsily attempts to wedge something in now and again — life is like a racecar engine, et cetera, etc. The result is a vast assortment of potential building up to very little.

Ferrari joins the ranks of an emerging subgenre: films depicting highly successful corporations as underdogs—Air (2023), Ford v. Ferrari (2019), House of Gucci (2021). Considering Ferrari rakes in roughly five billion Euros a year selling quarter of a million-dollar cars to the world’s richest people, it’s a hard sell. However, filmmakers seemed to have felt exploring the manufacturer’s origins or their turbulent years during World War II making parts for the Nazis and Italian fascists lacked the drama necessary to tell a compelling story. Instead, Michael Mann focuses on awkward glimpses of an estranged marriage that builds to the briefest glance towards a terrible racing tragedy which never explores its aftermath.

Photo from the set of Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Eros Hoagland. Owner EF Neon. Photo shows a sleek, compact red racing car, the Ferrari 315 S, flying down a cobblestone street.
Photo from the set of Ferrari (2023). Photo credit Eros Hoagland. Owner EF Neon.

The movie is largely based on Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine by Brock Yates. While that book manages to deconstruct the self-aggrandizing mythology Ferrari manifested for himself as well as taking the time for historical and personal context, as well as criticism of the man’s myriad flaws, very little of that made it into the adaptation. Instead, director Michael Mann and writer Troy Kennedy Martin deliver an infrequently nonlinear mess of scenes that barely relate anything other than famous car guy made fast cars between getting yelled at by his wife.

Ferrari frequently looks fabulous. The racing scenes are some of the best ever filmed. However, the human drama it seeks to convey is largely lost. Stellar performances by Penélope Cruz and Adam Driver keep these rickety vehicle going, but Mann’s maneuvering too often steers right into a wall. Though the movie putters across the finish line, Ferrari is nowhere near first place.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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