This review is published as part of DraftKings Network’s 2023 New York Film Festival coverage.
To actively describe the overall ethos of Michael Mann’s Ferrari is to picture the hard crashing to earth of a compelling figure from all sides of his life within a three-month period in 1957. The first glimpse of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) that we see is in the 1920s in old-time footage, smiling and cruising to victory. Flash forward to the period the film is based within, and he’s aged and haunted by past and present ghosts. Enzo wakes up, leaves his partner Lina’s (Shailene Woodley) bedside, and kisses his son Piero on the head as he heads out the door.
But that’s only to return to a home that might as well be a graveyard to the life he’s once known. His actual wife, Laura (a captivating performance by Penélope Cruz), is stuck in a perpetual state of grief – mourning Enzo's known infidelities and their son Dino's death from disease. They don’t even visit his grave together, each taking turns to speak at Dino's monument and one of Enzo’s stark scenes of vulnerability. Nevertheless, they are co-owners working within a luxury car company that is falling on hard times due to the death of a driver during a practice run and waning influence because rivals like Maserati are hot on his trail.
Still, the man behind the famous brand is likened to a gambler, as Mann shows, who is willing to push all his chips in even if it means ruin. Troy Kennedy Martin’s script based on the novel Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine written by Brock Yates, feels more locked into the personal and relationship aspects of Ferrari’s life in that small period. This is where the performances of Driver and Cruz excel the most (Cruz in particular). Enzo vacillates from finding the strength to keep his image alive against pressure from the press and reckoning with the skeletons of his past and present.
Racing is in his rearview mirror, and Enzo is in the passenger seat instead of being in control. While Driver omits this cool and calm exterior, there are brief moments in dialogue and facial expressions where you can tell everything is getting to be too much. Ferrari ruminates about losing friends, and even given how dangerous the sport of racing is; he puts all his efforts into putting a team together for the cross-country Mille Miglia. This is the end of the line for him, and not much matters. Cruz is a firecracker as Laura, a woman who will shoot a live pistol at Enzo to get him out of the malaise of his life.
However, it's much too late for all of that. Their legacy or, importantly, their deceased son’s memory is tied within the company. It’s heartbreaking to see Laura tethered to Enzo without knowing he has another family tucked away in a small town. They do a waltz where the steps are ordered by potential financial ruin and the loss of a child. It’s the most powerful dynamic in Ferrari, one Mann is most interested in. The source of contention concerning Lina is the fact that their son Piero doesn’t bear his last name. Woodley tries her best to assert herself as someone who needs Enzo to decide, but it doesn’t compare to the ultimate dynamic the film is based on.
Enzo lost a son and can’t have an heir to this throne because he’s interlocked between two lives that might as well be oil and water. He speaks of two things not being able to occupy the same space – Mann and Kennedy Martin leave this metaphor up to interpretation as it could mean cars or the splinters in Ferrari’s love life. There is racing in Ferrari, and much of it is built around the 1957 Italian race where Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) and a bunch of onlookers die gruesomely. Ferrari doesn’t mainly hold back in showing you the aftermath, even if the effects of the actual crash take away from the impact of what is happening. The cars look and feel authentic to the time, but there’s little to show how they are vital to this story besides the third act and Enzo speaking to his confidants, engineers, and racers.
A scene, in particular, has the triangle of people going to an Opera; interlaced with that, flashbacks show happier times. Tragedies are due to happen in life and change the meaning of everything. Knowing this, Ferrari detaches himself from seeing how it impacts anybody else. That train of thought works at odds with the spathes of emotion he does exhibit. In business, drivers dying is expected, and Ferrari looks at them like an assembly line.
Mann takes the audience to the quiet moments where, the night before the Mille Miglia, the drivers are writing notes for their significant others. It’s as if they are going off to war. His personal life is much more complicated than that because if you try to have it all, you usually come up with little or nothing.