Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The car racing scenes are the best in the history of cinema."

There’s scene about two thirds of the was through Michael Mann’s Venice hit in which a young woman is seated at a dressing table, reading. Too subtly for the eye to track, the lighting shifts over the course of the scene so that her golden hair fades towards white and her moist skin loses its shine, her eyes acquiring shadows. It’s a tiny detail in a film full of brilliant work (a fair bit of which can be attributed to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt), but it perfectly encapsulates the genius of Mann’s filmmaking. This film is uneven, slow to build, and not always successful at a dramatic level, but in other regards it is a triumphant return to form.

The thing is, anyone who knows what to expect from Mann will be prepared to exercise some patience, and that patience will be rewarded. We spend a lot of time listening to the engine purr – time in which to admire the beauty of form and function – but once this baby gets up to speed, there’s no stopping it. The car racing scenes are the best in the history of cinema. As a seasoned critic, I do not say that lightly. The locations, the angles, the use of light, the intimate understanding of the machines involved, the brilliant editing – everything comes together to deliver breathtaking work which leaves the competition in the dust.

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Though the extent of it invokes a fresh surge of awe, that Mann should excel in this regard is not unexpected. The challenge of the film lies in interweaving the action with the drama, and in developing the narrative threads that will make sense of a life not always lived at a corresponding page. The film is adapted from Brock Yates’ book, so part of this work has already been done. Screenwriter Troy Kennedy martin has done a decent job of paring it down further, though it still feel repetitive at times.

The work of carrying us through this and making it work rests squarely on the shoulders of Adam Driver. He’s an actor with tremendous range, unfortunate really to have a physique which invites miscasting. This is the most nuanced, low key role he has been given yet and it really gives him a chance to show what he’s made of. He’s also in the privileged position of working opposite Penélope Cruz, who is on top form, raw and bruised and sometimes elegantly vicious as the wife who clings to the memory of happy times before the death of their son but knows that he has moved on without her. It’s the complex, shifting relationship between them – with its lingering sympathies, sharp intellectual connection and forms of love for which society offers no template – which is the film’s real heart.

As the other woman in Enzo Ferrari’s life, Shailene Woodley eschews easy glamour and instead evokes a warm domesticity whose attraction to a man whose family has been shattered is obvious. Their scenes together suggest the life this man might have opted for had he not found himself at the helm of a company feted around the world. As the film begins, that company is in trouble. There is no longer enough money in its boutique luxury approach; it badly needs to adapt to changing times. Car fans will experience an additional thrill here because it is, of course, the beginning of the process which brought Ferraris within the reach of ordinary people (at least if they have a bit of luck in life and deprioritise everything else). Mann is successful at placing us in the moment, however, and at convincing us that, for all his love of the craft involved in car development, Enzo is not the world’s shrewdest business owner – he must be nudged into making necessary change.

Car fans will also know that thee will be some ugly moments along the road to glory. These are impeccably realised onscreen. Silence and stillness may be overused by a lot of directors, but Mann knows exactly how to deploy them, and the skill with which he moves from visually busy action to a tight focus on very specific details, and then to empty space, is unmatched. It’s thrilling to watch, shocking and disorientating exactly when it should be. It also reflects an understanding that it is precisely the awareness of possible horror that makes the gamble of high speed racing so addictive to those directly involved. Here, however, the gamble affects more than just the driver, and we see that in multiple ways, just as we see the emotional, functional and financial connections between the racing business and wider society.

Ferrari has a lot of flaws, but for fans of its stars, it’s a treat. If you love fast cars, you absolutely cannot afford to miss it.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2023
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Ferrari packshot
It's the summer of 1957 and Ferrari is in crisis, both in his business and personal life. He decides to take a gamble on a race, the Mille Miglia.
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Director: Michael Mann

Writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin, Michael Mann, Brock Yates

Starring: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Jack O'Connell, Patrick Dempsey, Valentina Bellè, Massi Furlan, Gabriel Leone, Erik Haugen, Brett Smrz, Peter Arpesella, Tommaso Basili, Lino Musella, Andrea Dolente

Year: 2023

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: US, UK, Italy, China

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