Early on in "Ferrari," a priest sermonizes from his pulpit, telling his congregation that if Jesus was born in 1957, he'd be born in Italy and he'd be a welder, like them. From their metal comes the engine, and from that engine springs life. But the engine giveth and the engine taketh away, as only a short distance away, Enzo Ferrari loses a record that sets the entire film's tragic events in motion. And through this juxtaposition, director Michael Mann asks his audience: is racing a gift from the gods? Or does it come from somewhere darker?
"Ferrari" is Michael Mann's first film in almost ten years, though he's produced other works in the meantime, like the terrific "Tokyo Vice" on HBO and the also fantastic "Ford vs Ferrari" from director James Mangold. In "Ford vs Ferrari," the company of Ford are the scrappy underdogs, eager to steal the cup from the reigning champions, Ferrari. And now in "Ferrari," Mann takes us to 8 years before the events of "Ford vs Ferrari," to 1957, when the Italian automaker is the underdog, verging on bankruptcy. But the similarities end there. The racing team at Ford were rule breakers, daredevils, family men who hate business and love racing. Enzo says he does business only to support the races, yet each conversation he has, no matter how intimate, turns into a negotiation. Enzo does love his family. Or at least, one of them. And Enzo says he loves racing, but it may only be because of how close it brings him near death, how acute it makes the stakes of mortality, steering him away from the tragedy of his own life.
Adam Driver is terrific as Ferrari, as is Penelope Cruz, playing Lana, Enzo's long-suffering wife. Driver is able to adroitly manage the weighty dialogue given to him, with some metaphors laid out so directly, they'd feel cartoonish from another actor. In one scene, Driver lays into his drivers for their fears of death. It's one of the film's most potent scenes, a long take as Enzo urges his drivers on, into the abyss. Cruz matches Driver's intensity, as Lana is one of the only people Enzo has no control over, someone he cannot snap his fingers at and demand she does his beck and call. But her resistance does not emancipate her. Instead, it makes clearer the emotional prison she, and Enzo, are trapped in.
However, the rest of the cast pales in comparison. Either the heft of the lines or the film's wide slew of characters compromises their performances, especially beside Cruz and Driver. It's especially so for the Ferrari racers, a crew of five who are so forgettable that I couldn't keep track of them even when their lives were on the line. And though her emotional performance is affecting, Shailene Woodley's accent work is singularly awful, pulling my attention away from the film in almost every scene. I try not to be pedantic but Woodley's accent is so terrible, it had me constantly confused whether her character, Enzo's mistress and the mother of second son, was Italian at all, or someone Enzo had met during the war. It's a shame because her scenes are the only ones where we see Enzo show any tenderness, lingering in the quiet of their home, away from roaring engines.
In one scene, Ferrari tells his son that if a thing works better, it will become beautiful. The reverse can be said of this film's cinematography, with its grand shots of the Italian countryside and its inventive compositions for much closer conversations. And it isn't an empty aesthetic beauty. These shots hark back to the priest's words. The engine is a gift from God, it stems from His Creation, the curves of each car matching the curves of the Italian countryside, matching the hips of the women Enzo sleeps with. But, when we consider these visual rhymes against the film's tragedy, we start to wonder whether it is divine at all. Perhaps it is the lust of temptation, of capital, of glory, of shame and guilt that taints the sport, beckoning its drivers, its makers, and Enzo himself, into the pits of Hell.