In Modena, everyone is losing––the football club, the women, the Ferraris. It’s the spring of 1957, and ex-racer-turned-entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), aka Il Commendatore, carries the weight of the city on his shoulders. And much more: the future of his 10-year-old company, his marriage, his affair, his bank account, his unrecognized son, and his dignity––to name the important things.
Maserati, Jaguar, and the rest have left Ferrari in the dust in recent competition. His staff badmouths him in the local paper like he won’t read it the next morning and fire their ass the second he walks into the factory. His drivers are dropping like flies, Enzo’s breakneck ethic of racing a death warrant for anyone crazy enough to drive for him. In short, Il Commendatore is a catalyst for disaster.
Michael Mann’s first feature since 2015’s Blackhat offers a late-career challenge: a time and place the iconic writer, director, producer has never touched: 1950s Italy. He’s done the ’30s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and almost all modernity. But never the ’50s. And his stories rarely leave the United States. When they do (e.g. Ali, Miami Vice), it’s often for a brief pit stop. Modena is tone, setting, and mood, an aesthetic invasive and beloved enough to be the heart of all three.
We open on 1920s archival racing footage of a twiggy Enzo crammed into a race car like a cartoon, loopy entertainer-style piano bouncing along as he whips around corner after corner, Adam Driver superimposed onto history. It’s a jaunty prologue that’s immediately met with the metal-heavy tones of tragedy. Perhaps a callback, or perhaps just terrific shots of the terrain, Mann serves up Ferrari’s own Last of the Mohicans landscapes––rolling hills drenched in rich greens, buttery golds, and Tuscan reds that blend together in a gradient morning haze.
Cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (who shot another Venice competition title in David Fincher’s The Killer) has a scintillating vintage pewter glow, a lighter version of the Godfather sepia tones they’re trying to evoke. But where the classic spends more time in closing restaurants, dark dining rooms, and lamplit offices, Mann’s biopic lives on the racetrack, the open road, the Italian countryside.
Ferrari gleams in the light of day. A silvery, summery shine washes through the streets of Modena like a glowing magnet, splitting through small, square windows that were built to let in as little light as possible, giving the cave-like rooms of Enzo’s many properties that dim afternoon depression of light––the awareness that it’s there, but the feeling it isn’t (much like The Banshees of Inisherin did with its pub last year).
The earthy colors sit in contrast to the candy-apple red of the bite-sized racecars, those coveted, precise hunks of shiny metal that awaken a fire of lust in people like Enzo, and in doing so keep the industry afloat in spite of them. Enzo is no car salesman. He sells cars only to be racing, and he doesn’t sell many. In fact, Enzo desperately needs to sell more cars if he wants to afford his life, much less his love for the game.
At the time our story takes place, Ferrari wasn’t even producing 100 cars a year. But Enzo knew he’d need a powerhouse like Ford or the Italian government to fund that level of production, and people nicknamed Il Commendatore aren’t usually the quickest to compromise, or for that matter reach out at all.
Laura Ferrari, the company’s ferocious financial head and Enzo’s wife (technically), knows that all too well. Penélope Cruz steals the show as the pistol-wielding Laura. Haunted by the slow, tragic death of the couple’s only child together, Dino, Laura looks like she’s perpetually just finished scream-crying into a pillow. It’s a great performance founded on a sizzling bitterness that manifests the film’s only (darkly) comedic moments in bursts of scathing monologue.
Shailene Woodley’s turn as his mistress Lina Lardi, on the other hand, is a tough hang. Primarily the accent, which is too dialed down to shirk its Americanism and so inconsistent it had me second-guessing whether she was supposed to be Italian or not. (She is––I triple-checked.)
Both women know that Enzo is a loose, frantic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of business-runner. It’s the main reason he inspires so much disdain and, likewise, has found so much success. Like a Scorsese protagonist, he’s religious about it. The racetrack is his church, as reflected by a riveting sequence in which the Ferrari men in mass wield stopwatches in the shadows of the pews to clock a rival car that can be heard setting the record outside on the track, all while the preacher’s sermon (about Jesus being born in Modena if he was born in the modern day) ramps up and the ticking inches its way up your throat.
He only seems truly comfortable when he’s in a room with his drivers; or, like most, in bed with his lover––not to be confused with his wife––or, like few, risking it all. So, as if there was no other option, he registers five racers for the Mille Miglia. The 1,000-mile, several-day race across the Italian countryside becomes the make-or-break event for the company and the riveting final 40 minutes of Ferrari, the Italian manufacturers in tense competition under the assumption that the winner will be granted a fast track to mass production conversations with companies like Ford without the threat of losing control.
The history that it is, the result of the race would be easy to research ahead of time, but there’s no need to spoil it. Just let it happen. Get lost in the feverish race like it’s real time, and witness the storied finish for yourself. It’s better that way.
As Enzo says and Mann would certainly echo, “When things work better, they’re often more beautiful to the eye.”
Ferrari premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will open on December 25.