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Ferrari, the Critic | Michael Mann and Penélope Cruz in a state of grace



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After an eight-year absence, director Michael Mann returns to the big screen with “Ferrari,” a biography of the brand’s founder, with Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz in the main roles.

In the firmament of contemporary cinema, Michael Mann is the rare star director, an auteur whose name commands respect in cinephile circles and almost transcends the limits of niche interest. He is also one of the few avowed formalists in the American industry, focusing on constructing his films as rhythmic machines rather than emotive narratives. For this reason, we could not expect that a biography signed by him would correspond to the common precepts of the genre. To begin with, Mann is not interested in a “cradle to grave” structure, preferring to focus on a specific moment, a historical episode in the life portrayed.

And what kind of life is this? Enzo’s Ferrari, of course, businessman and sportsman, a pilot who became the founder of the brand that still bears his name today. Specifically, the action lets us look back at a few months in the summer of 1957, when the tycoon’s family was still mourning the death of their prodigal son, Dino. In the same period, the threat of fierce competition and possible bankruptcy led Ferrari to take risks in the racing arena, investing everything in the 24th Mille Miglia. At the same time, in the domestic sphere, Enzo struggles with an angry wife and a lover who demands that his son be legitimized. Without a living heir, the bastard could become the future of Ferrari.

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Anyway, there is a lot of room for sleeves, outlining a path towards melodrama. But, once again, Mann turns up his nose at convention and chooses another path. He turns at the intersection to put sentimentality behind him and continue in search of something more cerebral, perhaps colder. Certainly, many accuse the tape of emotional coldness, making the mistake of finding it a defect rather than a quality. One thing is for sure, everything in this “Ferrari” seems deliberate to us, an engine where each gear is in the place engineer Mann decided. The final result is not perfect, but this will not be a consequence of the author’s tonal indiscipline or imprecision.

Above all, “Ferrari” builds a character study where our distance from the figure works as part of his exploration. We do not have access to Enzo Ferrari’s interiority because he himself denies us, even turning his face to the camera in the only moment he allows himself to be carried away by grief. It happens early in the film, when Mann shows us the visit of the man and his wife, Laura, to the mausoleum where Dino lies. Bursting into tears, the patriarch exposes himself like an open wound, letting his vulnerability shine through when no one is there to witness it. However, when there are too many tears, the look of the lens itself is too much and it blocks our view.

In contrast, Laura says nothing, remaining silent. For her, whose life takes place in emotional extremes, shouting what’s in her heart without using her tongue, this visit is solemn and introspective. Crucially, she is always facing the camera, always willing to reveal the secret of her soul to the viewer. In a subtle way, Mann establishes the differences between the two central figures in the form of a synecdoche, a symbol of an entire social dynamic on which his cinema has always focused. We talk about understanding masculinity as a constricting force, a prison in which men imprison themselves.

Hence stoicism as a public mask, the almost monastic denial of feeling, always diminished in the face of the presupposed rationality. Hence comes an almost primordial desire to achieve greatness as validation of one’s self, as if in achieving the immortality that fame proves. Hence comes the desire to overcome death, risking it within destructive machines whose glory is imagined to be above human frailty. When tragedy manifests itself in the form of a car accident, it is difficult not to wonder what motivates all this and justifies the risk of carnage. Mann does not provide a conclusive answer, but his study supports some strong possibilities and even comments on the capitalization of faith in these contexts – “Jesus would be an engineer” says the priest in his sermon.

ferrari reviews
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Such ideas come to us like a punch in the stomach. It’s all in the viscerality of the editing, in the way the legendary Pietro Scalia drives the adrenaline of the man behind the wheel, the discrepancy between the driver’s perspective and that of his audience. When accidents happen, they are a rhythmic shock above being a shock of torn flesh. You feel the same in the sound design, capable of giving you goosebumps with all the effects of metal on metal and rubber burning on the asphalt, the explosion of a plate hitting the wall and a pistol fired in the domestic scene. These last details again refer to the game of opposites between Enzo and Laura, her expressiveness and the second-hand violence that he perpetuates on the track.

It is the melodrama that “Ferrari” denies. He is Mann’s man taken to the peak. The plot concepts and technical feats are praised, the photography and the soundtrack composed in a week and a half by a desperate musician are also applauded. However, Michael Mann’s work lacks the balance of actors. Covered in makeup to age his complexion, Adam Driver does not suggest the weight of the loss and his caricatured accent gives us flashbacks to the camp from the “Gucci House.” Shailene Woodley as the lover is even worse, with her accent jumping and her characterization full of inconsistencies from start to finish. It’s a shame because, besides them, the film is well acted, even with the felt lack of Italian stars.

All that said, one cannot conclude a review of the film without first singing the glory of Penelope Cruz. As Laura Ferrari, the actress embodies a necessary foil for Enzo’s character, but also serves as support for the viewer. In her presence we can laugh and breathe, we can even shed a tear and overcome the icy surface of Mann and company’s anti-melodrama. Which Anna Magnani of the 21st century, Cruz is an elemental force capable of destroying a film, but also of saving it. Her pain is felt at the core and, in the final scene, the thesis of the argument is supported mainly by the foundations built in the performance of a bitter wife, a grieving mother, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “Ferrari” would be a good authorial exercise even without it. With Cruz, it becomes an essential title for Michael Mann’s filmography.

Ferrari, the Critic

Movie title: Ferrari

Date published: January 4, 2024

Director(s): Michael Mann

Actor(s): Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Patrick Dempsey, Gabriel Leone, Sarah Gadon, Jack O’Connell, Daniela Piperno

Genre: Drama, Biography, History, 2023, 130 min.


“Ferrari” is the prison of masculinity externalized in high-displacement vehicles, races where life is always at risk and glory is a dream that is paid for with blood, sweat and tears. As an archetype, “Mann’s man” reaches its apogee with Enzo Ferrari, but it is his contrast with his wife’s melodrama that elevates the film above a formal exercise. Penélope Cruz once again proves to be one of the best actresses of our time, as capable of performing under Almodóvar’s gaze as she is of adapting to the cinema of this American master, Michael Mann.

THE BEST: Cruz in a state of grace and all of Michael Mann’s formalistic apparatus. The racing scenes and especially those moments of the disaster are unforgettable.

WORSE: Driver and Woodley, the whole Enzo and his lover subplot. If it weren’t for the thematic importance of the relationship between the protagonist and his illegitimate son, we would say that this entire part should be deleted from the tape.


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