‘Ferrari’: There’s no one behind the wheel of this vehicle

‘Ferrari’: There’s no one behind the wheel of this vehicle

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(2.5 stars)

“We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness,” proclaimed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” in 1909. “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”

Marinetti died in 1944, the year before his political patron, Benito Mussolini. But Italy’s cult of speed and danger endured, furthered by men with such names as Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari. The last of those is the subject of “Heat” director Michael Mann’s first film in eight years.

Quick cuts, low camera angles and over-amped engine sounds make for dynamic car-racing sequences in “Ferrari.” But the bulk of this stylish period drama is about the man, not the machines that bear his name. That’s a problem, because Mann doesn’t seem to have figured out quite what he thinks about the automobile baron.

Set during just a few months of 1957, the movie observes Enzo Ferrari as he negotiates a twisting course of challenges: the recent death of his older son, the looming bankruptcy of his company, and the conflicting claims made on him by his wife and the mistress who’s the mother of his surviving son, 12-year-old Piero (Giuseppe Festinese).

The three central characters are played in wildly divergent keys. An almost unrecognizable Adam Driver, who’s almost 20 years younger than Ferrari was at the time, portrays the racecar maker as stoic and nearly all gray, from his slicked-back hair to suits that are much less streamlined than his cars. Penélope Cruz is operatically exaggerated as Laura, who’s not only Ferrari’s spouse but also his business partner, with a controlling interest in their company. The miscast Shailene Woodley portrays Ferrari’s mistress, Lina Lardi, as a girl-next-door type who seems basically American — despite the Italianate accent that she, like Driver, affects.

Enzo and Laura live together in a state of cold war that occasionally erupts into fire. They visit, regularly but separately, the crypt of their son, Alfredo “Dino” Ferrari, who died at 24 of muscular dystrophy. It’s noteworthy that his is the only death in “Ferrari” that’s not somehow the result of an automobile — and this in a country where cars were still rare. (In one scene, Enzo’s newest drivers arrive by train.)

Enzo calls car racing, without apparent self-awareness, “our deadly passion, our terrible joy.” That its destructiveness might be more terrible than joyous seems barely to have occurred to Mann while filming a long-unproduced screenplay credited to “The Italian Job” screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (who died in 2009).

Indeed, Mann sometimes treats deadly car crashes as punchlines. Early in the film, he cuts from Enzo’s assertion that “I don’t need another driver” to a wreck in which one of his drivers is thrown to his death. Rather than blame the car or racing, Enzo ascribes the fatality to the man’s being distracted because his mother disapproved of his girlfriend.

The movie culminates with the Mille Miglia, a 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) endurance race run on open roads, at great risk to the participating drivers and their navigators but also to ordinary motorists and spectators. Fans of auto racing may know that 1957 was the last year for the Mille Miglia. “Ferrari” viewers will see why: a catastrophe that Mann stages with matter-of-fact gruesomeness.

In the film’s final minutes, Enzo briefly sympathizes with the people who were sacrificed to his desire to win the race (and thus save his company). But he quickly returns to the work and his legacy. He’s a machine, just like the cars he makes and the cameras whose mechanical nature Mann emphasizes with showy rack-focus shots that shift suddenly to highlight a face or object.

Such stylistic touches give “Ferrari” a dual-retro quality: It’s set in the 1950s but looks like it was made in the 1970s.

Unreflective characters are not new for Mann, whose movies often depict tight-lipped loners. But the protagonists of such films as “Thief” and “Collateral” are stylized fictional icons of cinematic masculinity. Enzo Ferrari was a real person, not just a narrative device. No matter how ardently he sang of speed and danger, there must have been more to his character than “Ferrari” manages to find.

R. At area theaters. Contains some violence, sexual situations and strong language. 124 minutes.

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