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“Ferrari” reviewed

Inside the first minutes of the hectic new biopic Ferrari, the founder of the sports car giant has a pistol fired at what looks to be his head. In the context of this single morning in the summer of 1957, the gunshot is just one of many crises. The drama is constant. And yet the film also tips us off to a fascinating tension at its centre. This secretive, self-contained figure, played by Adam Driver, would sooner have his brains blown out than become the subject of a Hollywood movie.  Still, his biographer is a high-end operator: Michael Mann, poet of neon and dark nights in films from Thief to Heat to Miami Vice. The director seems a neat fit for high-performance cars. We briefly see Driver’s Ferrari at the wheel, deftly moving through the gears. You imagine Mann doing the same. Yet the match of portraitist and sitter could backfire. Between a director this big on surfaces, and a focal point who spent a life ducking interviews, you wonder if we’ll really learn what drove Ferrari? The answer sees the record souped-up with scriptwriter’s licence. That early shot is fired by Ferrari’s wife, Laura, played by a terrific Penélope Cruz. She means to miss (more or less), but sets the tone for the state of the marriage, and the shape of the movie: a whirring melodrama.  Recommended Travel Postcard from Modena: in search of Enzo Ferrari The driver’s seat is a relative safe space. Beyond it, complications include a hidden relationship with another woman, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom Ferrari has a son he never publicly acknowledged as his; the collapsing finances of Ferrari the company; and preparations for the 1957 Mille Miglia race, whose significance some viewers will already know. (The film’s motorsport scenes are well staged, if mostly there to remind us how indifferent metal is to flesh.)

Plates are spun at speed enough that, in lighter moments, the movie plays as knowing comedy. But tragedy comes too: before, during and after the farce. One sad note is the memory of House of Gucci, another tale of a bad Italian marriage and flagship business, Driver again a kingly industrialist with an accent just this side of Super Mario Bros. But this film is a league above the Gucci one, with something Ridley Scott’s fiasco never had: gravity. Loss haunts Ferrari: the early deaths of Enzo’s brother Alfredo and first-born son, Dino. And death, here, feels real. It is arbitrary — and final.

Cruz brilliantly maps the scar tissue. In one brief scene with her buried son, her face moves through a world of emotions: a defiant smile, a glaze of grief. The performance grounds an outsize character, handbag stuffed with company cash. Driver never has the same handle on the material. But his uncertainty is less damaging than it might be in a story that puts an impossible question to Ferrari himself. By the Mille Miglia, we know well the arch competitor. But Mann puts his foot down, to ask too which life force meant most to this cool logician: money or blood. We get our answer to that as well, one engineered to appear a thing of beauty, gleaming like a sports car.