Yes, Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” is a small art film, but with a $95 million budget spent across a tapestry of a roundly created world (if you trust the figures in the sturdy August profile by Variety’s Stephen Rodrick). Adam Driver’s Enzo Ferrari is torn between two households and the survival of his marque: the Modena industrialist must find a way to build (and sell) more than a hundred cars each year, while sustaining his racing ambitions. A former racer himself, Ferrari says, unlike other manufacturers, that Ferrari makes cars in order to race, rather than race to burnish their name. The son he had with Laura (Penélope Cruz), who is the brains of the books behind the business, died several years ago. In Enzo’s hours-long morning routine before arriving at work at eleven, moving from one bed or other to the barber shop for a daily touchup of his pure gray, pushed-back coif to coffee to mass, Enzo makes his way to the boy’s crypt, where he speaks aloud to him as if at confession.
Since the death of the child, he became a man of many worlds and few words, especially with Laura; he’s also bought a home, the childhood home of the dead boy, to house his mistress, Lina (Shailene Woodley) and the boy they had together a decade or so before. Laura does not know of this arrangement, unlike the rest of the town of Modena. (“Ferrari” is operatic in many ways, to its inclusion of an actual opera that moves its characters to tears.)
As with the yardage of verbiage by men in so many of Mann’s movies—when his male characters are not tight-lipped, fist-clenched—there is space for mind over metallurgy, for testing their metal, sometimes with women, from Frank, James Caan’s safecracker in “Thief,” blasting with acetylene in the opening and later confessing domestic dreams to Tuesday Weld in a diner suspended over an expressway, to Robert De Niro’s highline thief Neil McCauley in “Heat,” cruising a Santa Monica deli counter perusing his fresh copy of “Stress Fractures in Titanium.”
After an unsatisfactory match, and before the open-road Mille Miglia endurance race, Ferrari tells his racers that the others, like them, make cool, quick choices, they’re “hard-nosed pros.” What they share is that as racers, or former racers like Ferrari, are “men with a brutal determination to win, with a cruel emptiness in their stomachs loyal to one thing, not the teams, but to their lust to win.” The full speech is Driver’s aria—Ferrari is otherwise snappy with wisecracks and loving insults—which he hits in refined, emphatic notes. “We all know it’s our deadly passion, our terrible joy.”
The construction of “Ferrari” relies, like the onscreen factory, on many hands, including thirty-four producers, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank,” “The Killer”), editor Pietro Scalia (“JFK,” “Black Hawk Down”), composer Daniel Pemberton (“Steve Jobs,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”) and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini (“Cyrano”).
Soaring craft atop an austere telling, “Ferrari” implies with mood and lustrous detail a world of determination and damage, a piece of the twentieth century with shorn love and sheared steel, aluminum and titanium. You want to stop and touch, hold the fabrics, but the story has already blinked around another turn. Passions sartorial and gustatory and even sexual are indicated rather than presumed, as necessary foundation in the culture of this man to the true passion of rocketing forward at deadly velocity.
“Ferrari” opens in theaters Christmas Day.