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MOVIES: LFF 2023 - Ferrari Review

Ferrari is the latest from Michael Mann: a biopic about Enzo Ferarri, one of the most iconic figures in Formula One and car history – and it’s easy to see the Mann behind it all. It’s unconventional for him to tackle such a straightforward biopic and granted this is no crime thriller; but the next stage feels to turn the automative mogul into a character at the heart of Italian sports racing, transforming Formula One into a life or death horror story: every time a driver steps out onto the track, you’re unsure as to whether or not they’ll finish the race alive, let alone make it home in one piece.

At its core, Ferrari is a movie about masculinity being a cage that’s impossible to escape from, the gendered roles of men is explored in the stereotype of Ferrari’s character, which is broken down here before our eyes by Adam Driver, who delivers a immensely valuable performance. The opening act of the scene introduces us to yet another mogul who has a terrible personal life; waking up in 1957 with his mistress and his son before heading out without making a sound, going so far as to push his car out of the driveway. It's our introduction to Ferrari; who ignores all of those around him apart from one particular driver; only to go back to that driver and recruit him once his current one is badly injured in an horrific crash within seconds of the car leaving the floor. It’s a ruthless world, car racing – full of cutthroats and businessmen. The anti-Rush if you will; not a crowd pleaser but instead a stark reminder of the consequences of the early days of racing.

The film frames religion through the eyes of cars; much like football; is a cult. Comparisons are made between the two, Ferrari threatens to move his racers out of the headquarters in Modena because the football team is failing and it’s damaging morale. Even in Church, people check in on the racing – it’s everywhere, overwhelmingly so. Again; this is all familiar Michael Mann territory – using his character theme to highlight a way of keeping Ferrari in the past, grieving for a son that he lost. Yes he’s moved on, and so to a degree has his wife, Laura, Penelope Cruz – but there’s still lingering shadows of arguments here. Both Cruz and Driver are caught in a toxic relationship from which Cruz sells it her all in the shoutier moments; threatening Driver with a gun early on with such deadpan it’s almost like a normal habit, but it’s equally impressive that her quietest moments are some of her best. It’s equally impressive that Driver sells the conviction of a man nearing 60 when he himself is only 39; and rarely ever better. Ferrari towers over everyone with the same on-screen presence as people like Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders: unstoppable, unmovable. There are times when this risks treading into soapier territory, especially on: but Mann plays with everything here deliberately. It’s all intentional and it’s all brilliant – finding time to allow the smaller, intimate moments between Woodley and Driver in a small house in a village superbly well, but also keeping everything condensed, he doesn’t overstay his welcome here – keeping the film at 130 minutes, a much needed relief when you’ve been up since 5am, have already seen 2 movies, and the film starts at 8:30 in the evening. But it was very much worth the experience, and if a director’s cut is coming, I’d happily watch two more hours – although this feels like a complete event.

And that’s before we get to the racing. Car racing has been hard to capture on the big screen but the solution, as Michael Mann revealed in the Q&A following the surprise film screening at the London Film Festival, is to make the cars themselves and film them with all the fury and trepidation of those who were watching a race in person. The sound design is key here – rivalling the authenticity of racing games and capturing the sheer vehicular motion of the cars hurtling along the tracks in a way that its counterparts couldn’t really hope to manage. Rare has it been that racing has ever felt so authentic – in fact; I’d argue that it never has more so. That’s in part because this film is a testament to those who get on and do their jobs without a need for the heroics: the sound of the engines is the key to that. It’s right from the bottom to the top – but on a grander scale than Ford v. Ferrari, less about the competition and more about the legacy of Ferrari himself. A haunting, hallow drama – and a rarity in the modern era, a complex, constructive biopic.

If anything this feels like it avoids the traditional blockbuster format by honing on a select few months building up to one event. It’s a throwback all the same though; not a step back after Blackhat or Miami Vice but instead a change of direction: circular cinema with clear structure, evidence and intent of a man who’s poured his soul into it. It avoids glamourising Ferrari and instead operates as a tragedy; a grand epic in the old-school scale with some of the most devastating single set pieces that I’ve seen on the big screen all year; cold, cruel and heartless filmmaking.

Mann is one of the best to ever do it – and Ferrari more than lives up to the bill.

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