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Venice 2023 review: 'Ferrari' - Michael Mann returns with a decent but at times inert biopic

Ferrari
Ferrari Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
Published on Updated
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Ferrari vs Ferrari

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Set in the summer of 1957, we find ex-racer turned race-car builder Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) in something of a pickle. Bankruptcy threatens the factory he and his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), built from nothing. 

To make matters worse, their fraying marriage is circling the drain: the loss of their son, Alfredo, continues to weigh heavy, and the philandering Ferrari maintains a (loving) affair with his wartime squeeze Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has an illegitimate son.

Amidst the looming threat of being overtaken by Maserati on the market and discussions of a merger with a bigger outfit, one upcoming event could turn things around for Ferrari: the treacherous Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race across Italy that could be perilous to his drivers... Still, theirs is a profession that is a “deadly passion and a terrible joy”...

Style over substance

For his first film since 2015’s disappointing Blackhat, Michael Mann returns with a passion project based on Brock Yates’ novel ‘Enzo Ferrari: 'The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machine’, that functions as a classy but surprisingly pedestrian biopic.

While it works as a handsome period piece that wisely elects to cover a relatively small chunk of the main man’s life, there’s a noticeable absence of Mann’s characteristic stylings, making Ferrari feel oddly conventional from an aesthetic point of view. 

The narrative touchstones are there, as Mann has always focused on the story of stern men and their consuming obsessions; but there remains a nagging feeling that this film, while smoothly executed, could have been directed by James Mangold, and no one would have been the wiser. No shade intended to Jimmy – whose Matt Damon-Christian Bale-starrer Ford vs Ferrari was a significantly tenser affair.

The man, the motors and the Mrs.

Not that tension was necessarily what Mann was going for here. Ferrari works best as a psychological vivisection of Enzo and his relationship woes, with both the aptly-named Driver and Cruz delivering the goods.

Driver’s imposing physicality is perfect for the role, his Italian accent is mercifully less OTT compared to his House of Gucci lilts and sweet hind arm seams, can the man wear a suit; Cruz is on particularly show-stealing form here as a grief-stricken mother and a woman constantly having to reaffirm her place at the table.

Early scenes see Cruz fantastically delivering both sides of a layered character with reduced screen time: one minute, she confronts her husband with a pistol (which leads Enzo’s Mamma to delightfully comment “I’d sooner re-arm Germany before giving that woman a gun”) and the next, she’s at her son’s grave, mourning an unbearable loss. What Cruz achieves in this latter sequence is wordlessly communicating wells of simmering pain that assures her character can’t be cheaply dismissed as the cliché of a volatile Italian wife.

Fear not - petrolheads and those who enjoy "cars go vrooom" films won’t be left wanting. The racing sequences in the final act are strong, with one jaw-dropping sequence – the Guidizzolo tragedy, a horrifying crash that resulted in the loss of nine lives of the public and that of driver Alfonso de Portago (here played by Gabriel Leone) – hitting very hard. The gasps in the press screening were audible – with plenty of hands remaining on mouths in the aftermath of a perfectly calibrated scene.

Ferrari remains a very compelling watch, but as the main man says: “You get in to win – brake later” – and you wish Mann had taken his foot off the brake peddle a bit more.

Ferrari premiered in Competition at the Venice Film Festival and rolls out in cinemas worldwide late December.

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