Italian automaker Enzo Ferrari struggles through personal and professional turmoil during one fateful summer in Ferrari, which opens in cinemas throughout the Czech Republic this weekend. Bolstered by a first-rate presentation from director Michael Mann that includes some nail-biting moments during its thrilling Mille Miglia climax, this is a breath of fresh air for the biopic genre and one of the best films of 2023.
But Ferrari isn’t really a biopic. Its narrative, from a decades-old script by Troy Kennedy Martin based on Brock Yates’ novel Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, condenses itself into just a few fateful months in the life of the Italian automaker. Still, it manages to paint a striking portrait of its lead character while filling the runtime with dramatic tension from multiple angles.
Adam Driver stars as Enzo Ferrari, who speaks in precise staccato bursts and never wastes a word. A detached stoic who maintains his composure as his world crumbles around him, Mann’s Ferrari shares a lot in common with another of the director’s creations: Tom Cruise’s zen hitman in Collateral.
Ferrari takes place in the summer of 1957, with Enzo Ferrari coming to terms with the death of his son Dino the previous year and his crumbling marriage to wife Laura, played by Penélope Cruz with an electric passion that makes up for the emotion lacking from Driver’s characterization, and then some. Ferrari is also maintaining an affair with mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), but won’t officially go public with their son Peiro (Giuseppe Festinese) for fear of what it would do to Laura.
Enzo has good reason to fear Laura: she owns half his company, and manages its finances. Ferrari sales aren’t great, and they’re about to get worse after Maserati driver Jean Behra (played by real-life driver Derek Hill) shows up in Modena and breaks the company’s record on the local racetrack.
Ferrari is about to go under unless they ramp up production, but to sell more cars they need the kind of public exposure that money can’t buy. Enzo sets his sights on winning the upcoming Mille Miglia open-road race from Brescia to Rome and back.
The Ferrari team of drivers includes Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey), Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell), and new recruit Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone), a Spanish aristocrat whose Hollywood girlfriend Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon) distracts cameras from the cars; as they take to the dangerous open roads, the fate of the company hangs in the balance.
But the tension of Ferrari isn’t only limited to the driving; as the Mille Miglia unfolds, Enzo’s personal life starts to unravel as Laura uncovers his affair. For those unfamiliar with racing history, the film takes some shocking climactic turns; but the utterly natural way in which all the tension is presented, and how it isn’t about the race, but so much more, makes it feel so much more relatable.
There’s a human element present throughout the narrative, of processing grief and dealing with the death, that cuts through to something universal. The characters in the film are involved in the racing industry in the 1950s, an arena in which death is lurking around the corner, unpredictable but inevitable. Driver’s detached portrayal showcases a man all too aware of the fleeting nature of life.
Ferrari makes an interesting comparison with Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic that dropped on Netflix last month. Both films present present a striking portrayal of a prominent 20th century figure and eschew the usual biopic tropes, but do so in radically different ways.
Maestro widens its narrative scope to condense 50 or so years into two hours, through isolated vignettes that combine paint a larger picture of Bernstein’s life and legacy. Ferrari takes the complete opposite approach: Mann’s colors Enzo Ferrari’s entire life through a single moment in time. Both films are well worth seeing, but Ferrari is a more precise depiction of its subject, and it tells a more dramatically satisfying story.
In his first film since 2015’s underrated Blackhat, 80-year-old director Mann shows that not only has he not lost a step, but he’s even progressed as a filmmaker: Ferrari also compares favorably to his 2001 biopic Ali, which had subject matter more suited to the big screen, perhaps, but a narrative full of familiar tropes. While many biopics attempt to cover too much in telling the story of an entire life lived, Ferrari cuts right to the heart of its subject, and crosses the finish line in captivating fashion.