Maverick Life

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‘Ferrari’ is a full-throttle biopic about one of motoring’s biggest names

‘Ferrari’ is a full-throttle biopic about one of motoring’s biggest names
Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in 'Ferrari'. (Photo: Neon / Supplied)

Michael Mann’s film about Enzo Ferrari weaves the thrill of high-speed racing with the human emotion of a businessman on the brink of guts or glory.

Oscar season is biopic season, and the end-of-year movie slate is packed with filmmakers mining real-life stories for a chance at industry recognition. Some can’t resist the opportunity to pander to the Academy’s simplistic preferences, and unfortunately, many of the better, more sophisticated movies end up being shut out of the race.

One such worthy contender is Ferrari, Michael Mann’s depiction of Enzo Ferrari, the Italian entrepreneur who turned his family name into an immortal brand. Enzo is played by Adam Driver, who dons prostheses and a bald cap to appear older and wizened, and he’s flanked by two formidable women, played by equally redoubtable actors. Penélope Cruz is Laura Ferrari, his ferociously driven wife and business partner, and Shailene Woodley plays Lina, Enzo’s mistress, of whom Laura is woefully unaware.

Troy Kennedy Martin’s screenplay selects a number of strands from Brock Yates’s 1991 biography of Ferrari, including the gradual decay of Enzo and Laura’s marriage, the commercial issues facing Enzo’s struggling business, and the fierce drive to victory and undying glory for the Ferrari name.

The greatest pleasure of Ferrari is how Mann deftly interweaves these strands into an exquisite artistic portrait.

Each aspect of Enzo’s story is interlinked with the next. Enzo’s marriage is threatened by his infidelity, but his affair with Lina has given him a son, and a chance to extend his legacy. But Enzo’s legacy is threatened by shrinking revenue lines. Revenue lines must be fostered by winning races. But winning races requires intensive investment of capital, and even greater investments of time, energy and spirit. And Enzo’s capital lines (and, in some moments, his life) are in the hands of his resentful wife. Laura can manage a business deal with greater acuity than any man she meets, but the possibility of her learning of Enzo’s affair brings Enzo’s situation to an unbearable tension. The break of a bond and the collapse of a life’s work are fused into one, and the menace of both looms around every corner.

Ferrari is especially attuned to the closely looming threat of death. Race car drivers are shown routinely writing letters to their families the night before a race, in case it’s the last thing they get to communicate. Enzo and Laura’s marriage has faltered after the death of their only son, Dino, who died a year before the events in the film take place. And Enzo’s fortress of emotional distance was erected in the wake of losing friends in a racing accident. The instantaneousness of the loss of life in Enzo’s field flashes across the screen more than once in the film.

The rich loam of cinema is in the moment-by-moment goings-on of each human being’s inner and outer lives. Mann’s film is filled not with picturesque and grandiose scenes, but with the matter of details and decisions, of trade-offs and conditions, and of the interplay between personal histories and corporate accomplishments.

Ferrari

‘Ferrari.’ (Photo: Neon / Supplied)

The drama hangs as much on an asset ledger, a power-of-attorney agreement, and an unsigned cheque, as it does on the explosive confrontations of a spurned wife or on the suspenseful outcome of a race. These practicalities are the substance of the film, because they are the substance of life.

Mann’s storytelling here reminds me of the films of Clint Eastwood. Each director, in a late stage of his career, has turned his focus to the sheer essence of the story, without an outsized concern for stylised cinematic tricks. Mann’s quietly elegant approach focuses on personal endeavour and professional care, on the accumulation of a life’s actions and the achievements that they result in.

Ferrari

(Image: Neon / Supplied)

And Enzo is nothing if not a brazen self-portrait of Mann himself.

Mann, similarly concerned with the day-to-day stuff of life in his long career of filmmaking, finds the essential beauty in making things work, and in the gentle but firm touch that brings a team’s efforts to a stunningly synergised fruition.

When Enzo wheedles deals with both financiers and his wife, he resembles a director pulling whatever strings he needs to, to get his project off the ground. When Enzo gives a private word to each race car driver, some warm and assuring, some brutal and tenacious, he shows the acumen of a director, attuning his approach to each performer and each craftsman on his set. And when Enzo works tirelessly to build and leave something worthwhile behind for his surviving son to take over, the viewer can practically see the personal statement of the artist blazoned across the screen, professing the beauty of life in each moment’s work. DM

Ferrari is currently playing in South African theatres.

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