Producers: Michael Mann, P.J. van Sandwijk, Marie Savare, John Lesher, Thomas Hayslip, John Friedberg, Laura Rister, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Gareth West, Lars Sylvest and Thorsten Schumacher   Director: Michael Mann   Screenplay: Troy Kennedy Martin   Cast: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Sarah Gadon, Gabriel Leone, Jack O’Connell, Patrick Dempsey, Daniela Piperno, Michele Savoia, Ben Collins, Andrea Dolente, Giuseppe Bonifati, Marino Franchitti, Valentina Bellè, Benedetto Benedettini and Tommaso Basili   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

Michael Mann’s biographical film about Enzo Ferrari is sleek and slick, with images casting a metallic gleam to bewitch the eye, like the vehicles from his fabled company that circle today’s tracks at astonishing speeds.  But you won’t find any such cars in “Ferrari,” because though the script by Troy Kennedy Martin is based on Brock Yates’s 1992 cradle-to-grave book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Car, The Races, The Machine,” it focuses, apart from a few flashbacks, on a sliver of his life—specifically the year 1957, when he faced personal and professional crises.  Mann uses these months to paint a portrait of the man as a domineering figure who tried to control both himself and everything around him, with, of course, only variable success.

A barely recognizable Adam Driver captures the stern, implacable exterior of Ferrari as his marriage, to the volcanic Laura (Penélope Cruz), is disintegrating after the death of their beloved son Dino (Benedetto Benedettini), whom we see in some of the film’s few flashbacks.  Enzo’s severe, opinionated mother Adalgisa (Daniela Piperno) hardly helps matters.  Nor does the fact that Enzo is far happier with his long-time mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has another son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese), whom Lina is anxious for him to acknowledge with his name before his upcoming confirmation.

Ferrari’s business is also in a precarious state, on the verge of bankruptcy, and attempts to secure outside financing are complicated by the fact that he shares ownership with Laura, who’s tired of his philandering and threatens simply to liquidate her share.  It becomes imperative for him to field cars—and drivers—that will win the Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile endurance race through northern Italy.  In fact one of his entries—a Ferrari 315 S driven by Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey)—does come in first. 

But the victory is marred by tragedy.  A tire on another Ferrari car, a 335 S driven by Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), with Edmund Nelson (Eri Haugen) as navigator, explodes and the car veers out of control into a crowd of spectators at Guidizollo, killing Portago, Nelson and nine onlookers, five of them children.  Yet the business survives despite the public blowback.

Screenwriter Martin and the veteran director, making his first film in eight years, cover this period in Ferrari’s life, an annus both mirabilis and horribilis for him, with something very near brilliance.  After a brief prologue in which Driver is almost comically inserted into archival racing footage to show us the young Enzo speeding down the track during his years as a driver for Alfa Romeo, the actor reappears as the fifty-nine-year old automotive mogul known to his employees as the Commendatore, a man respected for his command of detail and feared for his demands for perfection.  Grey-haired and ramrod straight, he loosens up only when spending time with Lina and Piero, or when attending mass or the opera.

His conversations wife his wife are marked by her bitter recriminations, and when they visit Dino’s grave in the family crypt, they do so separately.  His relations with the public are no more cordial: he considers the press vipers, and responds to criticism of his cars’ race losses with sarcastic condescension.  But as a businessman, he jockeys imperiously between selling high-performance vehicles to elite patrons, courting possible investors, and overseeing final touches to the cars and decisions about the driving team for the Mille Miglia.  The mood is tense, as a recent test run had resulted in a crash in which Eugenio Castellotti (Marino Franchitti), one of his drivers, died.

Ferrari, in fact, is obsessed with thoughts of death—not only the loss of his son and Castellotti, but memories of old track comrades killed decades earlier.  Yet he’s philosophical about the dangers in his business: when his mother suggests that he feels guilty about Castellotti’s death, he suggests curtly that the guilty party was really the dead driver’s mother, whose insistence that her son marry a high-born girl (Valentina Bellè) undermined his concentration.  And arguing with Laura, he insists that he did everything he could to slow the progress of the disease that took their son at only twenty-four.

The final act of the film is devoted to the Mille Miglia, with exciting reenactments of the race, the bullet-like vehicles speeding through villages down Alpine roads, interspersed with Ferrari’s reaction as he follows his cars’ progress and issues orders to the drivers and the support team.  It culminates, of course, in Taruffi’s victory, which is obscured by the horror of the crash.

Mann stages the tragedy in a masterly fashion, with the literal flight of the airborne car into the crowd followed by a painful tracking shot of the victims, the grotesque detail, including De Portago’s severed corpse, only partially obscured by tricks of light and shadow in Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography, in which here as elsewhere shades of grey dominate.  That’s also true of Maria Djurkovic’s production design and Massimo Cantini Parrini’s costumes, including Ferrari’s suits and sunglasses; the resultant images often look like black-and-white compositions only gently touched with color, except in the outdoor daylight race scenes, with their brightly-colored cars and pristine vistas.

The film ends with the aftermath of the race, in which Ferrari has to deal with the public outcry over the crash, the beginnings of an investigation into the cause, and the potential effect upon his company—with possible collapse averted by an accommodation with Laura.

Driver dominates the film, capturing the steely resolve Ferrari exudes in public, tempered by his affectionate behavior toward Lina and, especially, Piero; it’s a remarkably controlled performance, actually quite showy but in an understated way that conceals the histrionic quality.  By contrast Cruz is a furious force of nature, until at the close she proves even more determined than her husband to do everything necessary to save the firm they’d jointly founded a decade earlier.  Everyone else, including Woodley, is distinctly secondary, but Piperno makes a memorably stereotypical Italian mama, and Dempsey, as Taruffi, like Driver buries his familiar persona in the role.

Edited with skill by Pietro Scalia, who brings a combination of stateliness and edginess to the expository material as well as the racing sequences, and boasting an aural backdrop—with a strikingly razor-sharp score by Daniel Pemberton that combines well with a sound design by Lee Orloff that becomes an ominous roar in the racing sequences—Mann’s film as is much a technical marvel as the cars Ferrari produced.

But it’s also, like the man it depicts, austere, analytical and, in the end, deeply opaque.  “Ferrari” engages the brain without ever touching the heart.