Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Michael Mann’s filmography is notable for containing many films with a passionate cult following, yet he is still not a household name. His visual style is unique and recognisable, and his chosen narratives are similarly compelling, dark and thought provoking, but he maintains a respectable level of anonymity. There’s really no reason he shouldn’t be more well known, given that Thief (1981), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004) are all just as revered as the works of Martin Scorsese, David Fincher or Quentin Tarantino. With Mann, you always know you’re in for something interesting, expertly crafted and worthy of discussion, even if the results aren’t 100 percent perfect. As such, Ferrari (2023) could be interpreted as a quick snapshot of Mann’s entire career.
As the title implies, the film centres on the true life story of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), the world famous businessman, entrepreneur and ex-professional driver responsible for the creation of the Ferrari car brand and racing team. Unlike many biopics, Ferrari only covers a small part of the man’s storied history, focusing on the events of 1957. Therein, the film opens with Ferrari and his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) mourning the loss of their recently deceased son, Dino. This isn’t the only thing putting a strain on their relationship, as Ferrari has been maintaining an affair with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he is secretly raising another son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese). Adding to Ferrari’s stress is the company’s financial situation, resulting in the possibility of a buyout by the Ford Motor Company. Thus, Ferrari enters his racing team into the prestigious (and dangerous) Mille Miglia, hoping that a win in the 1000 mile race across Italy will stave off this development.
When it comes to biopics, the topic of historical accuracy is discussed greatly. With a fictional film, no one is concerned whether or not the story adheres to reality, but films based on real events are often judged for their fidelity. Historical inaccuracies can completely ruin a film for some viewers, even if the film itself is perfectly functional on its own terms. However, there are just as many instances where films are completely ahistorical, yet no one seems to mind. Thus, historical accuracy isn’t a make or break for a film’s quality, but rather is judged on a case by case basis. With that in mind, Ferrari is a mixed bag, as it clearly has plenty of respect for the facts, but it also rearranges the timeline. Specifically, there are certain elements of Enzo Ferrari’s life which actually occurred 10 years after the film’s setting, yet they are integrated alongside the factual events of 1957. Additionally, there are important pieces of historical context that are completely omitted, which is notable considering they (in reality) affect the narrative’s outcomes.
This all means that Ferrari shouldn’t be trusted as a historical document, but the revisionism serves a purpose. For example, one of these changes is used to give Enzo Ferrari a cinematically compelling motivation for entering the Mille Miglia. Enzo’s real life reasons for entering his team into the race would not make for interesting viewing, so it makes sense to mix things up here. Therefore, the rearranged information isn’t a huge issue, considering that these things did indeed happen, just in a different order. There’s very little harm in changing the timeline as long as the overall picture is truthful and is used to create extra engagement, which Ferrari mostly does.
However, that level of engagement is definitely tested, as Ferrari’s pacing is surprisingly slow for a film involving fast cars. Those expecting a racing thrill ride like Rush (2013) or Ford v Ferrari (2019) will likely be disappointed, as Ferrari rarely focuses on the racing or even the cars for majority of the runtime. Most of the film is dedicated to unpacking Enzo’s personal struggles, corporate ambitions, and emotionally disaffected ego. This does make for an interesting character study, but there’s a strange dissonance, as Enzo’s ambitions were tied to his love of racing and winning. This may result in the audience feeling shortchanged for not seeing more racing. On the other hand, keeping most of the film’s events off the track makes a lot of sense, as Enzo himself wasn’t in the cars at this point in his life. Seeing him go from boardroom to boardroom, directing orders to executives, stakeholders, engineers and his family, feels appropriate and respectful in terms of adaptation.
Once the film does pick up the pace, things do improve. This is most evident by the time we arrive at the climatic race, which is brilliantly constructed, staged and shot. There’s not a single green screen in sight, as Mann and his team clearly travelled halfway across the world to shoot in the Italian countryside. The final racing sequence isn’t about the thrills or the speed, but more about slowly building the tension, which ultimately culminates in one of the most viscerally stunning sequences committed to the screen all year. Even for those who know how the famous Mille Miglia ended, it’s a shock to the system, and will leave the audiences’ jaws on the floor. However, like everything else with the film, there’s a negative to go along with the positive. In this case, Ferrari’s final thematic point seems slightly unclear based on how the story developed. If we’re being charitable, we could say the film is just a broad overview of all the facets of Enzo Ferrari.
From a performance perspective, Ferrari also exhibits many pros with a few cons. As is the case with most biopics, all eyes will be on the lead performance, which in this case is Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari. There’s always something disingenuous about American actors adopting a foreign affectation, but Driver’s return to the Italian accent he adopted on House of Gucci (2021) isn’t as offensive to the ear as many worried. Shailene Woodley isn’t so lucky, as her attempt at an Italian accent is wildly inconsistent. This isn’t to say her performance is weak, as Woodley continues to be expertly skilled in emoting powerfully, yet quietly. Regardless, the real star of the show turns out to be Penélope Cruz as Laura Ferrari, who is utterly hypnotic every time she enters the frame.
Michael Mann’s Ferrari is a showcase for all of the director’s greatest strengths, as well as his greatest weaknesses. Despite this, Ferrari isn’t a disappointing experience, as even the weakest elements are delivered with care and artistic integrity. It’s rather fascinating, because you may not be enjoying Ferrari while you’re watching it, but the more thought you give it, the more you respect it.
Best way to watch it: After a nap, so that you won’t fall asleep in the middle.