More than almost any other director, the methods of Michael Mann’s filmmaking have always matched its meanings, and his characters are defined by their attempts to reconcile (or avoid reconciling) two contradictory impulses: a dogged, almost monastic pursuit of perfection or personal transcendence on the one hand, and a deep well of romantic longing that recognizes the limits of that pursuit on the other. His films operate on a similar principle: they occupy the extremes of both logic and feeling, realism and stylization, engineering and artistry. Mann’s personal vision and that of his subject have never felt closer than in Ferrari, his first film in nine years and the closest we’ve yet come to seeing the filmmaker’s version of a self-portrait.
His determination to bring the life of the revered Italian sports car manufacturer Enzo Ferrari to the screen has been well-documented: he began developing the project in the 1990s with Sydney Pollack, and the film’s screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin passed away in 2009 (the movie is dedicated to both men). Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale were attached at various points, before Adam Driver eventually signed on, and Mann himself even considered helming what became James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari. The late-career realization of a longtime passion project by a master filmmaker calls to mind Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and the result feels as much like a philosophical tract as Scorsese’s film. But if Scorsese’s characters are defined by the dissonance between their actions and philosophy, Mann’s protagonists attempt to find a harmony between the two — a religion of speed, precision, and achievement.
Ferrari’s opening finds Enzo at a turbulent moment: it is 1957, one year after the death of his son Dino, and his marriage to his wife and business partner Laura (Penélope Cruz) has curdled into little more than a business relationship. Laura has long since accepted Enzo’s infidelity, but is crucially unaware that he has carried on a twelve-year love affair with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has also fathered a young son, Piero. Ferrari is also facing financial insolvency, as their lack of racing success and Enzo’s disinterest in sales have nearly bankrupted the company. Rival Maserati has just brought in a highly touted new driver, and the first racetrack sequence we see ends in the fiery death of a Ferrari driver.
Enzo’s emotional investment in his work is unmistakable, but he’s resolutely unsentimental about its risks — he responds to his driver’s death by coldly informing young hotshot Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) that he now has a spot on the team. He demands as much devotion as he inspires from his drivers, defining his outlook as “beat the world or do something else.” It’s hard not to draw parallels to Mann, who has become famous not only for his own perfectionism and rigorous work ethic but for expecting the same out of his collaborators. But as with the filmmaker, Enzo’s totalizing devotion to his work isn’t for its own sake — it’s deeply reflective of his emotions and worldview, of reaching for his own version of the sublime through material means. Racing in Ferrari is also inextricably linked to the time and place the film inhabits. A brilliant early sequence features Enzo and his team at Mass in their hometown of Modena, the center of the Italian auto industry. The priest pontificates on how if Jesus were alive today, he would not be a carpenter but a metalworker, likely working in a car factory. The Ferrari crew, for their part, are busy discreetly clocking the Maserati time trials taking place at the racetrack right outside the church. When Enzo explains the inner workings of his engine to Piero, he might as well be discussing a work of Renaissance art. His words to the boy feel like a definitive Mann statement: “the better something works, the more beautiful it is to the eye.”
The beauty of Mann’s work hasn’t always been appreciated in its own time, however. The radical digital experiments of Miami Vice and Public Enemies were often dismissed as cheap and ugly-looking, to say nothing of Blackhat’s historic box-office failure. In the years since Blackhat’s release, this trilogy has become the focal point of the massive wave of renewed appreciation that has made him a uniquely beloved figure in modern cinephilia. Despite referring to Blackhat as “ahead of the curve” recently, with this film Mann has largely pulled back from his attempts to establish a new visual language for commercial cinema in the digital era.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (who has also been drafted by fellow digital pioneer David Fincher), he shoots Ferrari in a relatively classical style that still manages to look like almost nothing else in the current landscape. The extreme close-ups full of negative space and striking compositions that have marked his recent work are still here, but in relatively short supply. Perhaps Mann is attempting to find a more natural approach to shooting a digital period piece, one that flattens its inherent contradictions rather than heightening them, Public Enemies-style. Still, there are moments when the film feels like Mann simply and uncharacteristically transplanting his script to the screen. The images and textures captured by his 21st-century films aren’t just incidental — they’re the very essence of his cinema, invigorating and investigating his scripts at every turn, and Ferrari becomes somewhat more conventional in losing them.
While not an avowed disciple like John Carpenter, there’s always been something of Howard Hawks in Mann — in his focus on men staring down death in the name of professionalism, and in the sincere romanticism at the heart of his genre thrills. Ferrari, then, would be Mann’s Red Line 7000, a late-period racing drama that’s frank about the death drive at the heart of the sport (Jack O’Connell and Patrick Dempsey play two more of Ferrari’s suicidally committed drivers). But the connection isn’t just superficial; they also share an uncommonly heavy focus on the women orbiting the action. Mann has taken some flak over the years for his writing of female characters, and Laura may be his richest yet, as Cruz plays the character with deep reservoirs of rage and regret, moving far beyond what could have been an archetypal wife role (Woodley, dipping in and out of an Italian accent throughout, doesn’t fare quite as well). Laura’s power over the business side increases as the emotional gulf between her and Enzo grows, and the shifting power dynamics between them are a fascinating line of development.
Ferrari’s dire financial straits lead Enzo to consider selling part of his company to Ford or Fiat, and his resistance to the idea of managerial influence on his life’s work is another autobiographical element (the film is Mann’s first to be made outside of the major studio system since Dino de Laurentiis funded Manhunter). And while the director’s admiration for his subject is clear, the shocking end of the climactic Mille Miglia (1000 Miles) race makes the price that can come with such single-minded determination brutally evident. There is no action without consequences in Mann’s cinema, and with Ferrari he asks us to consider them all — the glory and the tragedy, the beauty and the ugliness, what we make of ourselves and what we leave behind.
DIRECTOR: Michael Mann; CAST: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Patrick Dempsey, Gabriel Leone; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN THEATERS: December 25; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 10 min.
Originally published as part of InRO’s NYFF 2023 coverage.