Plenty of movies about racing have left me with a lead foot, but none has ever made me afraid to drive—until Ferrari.
Ferrari follows Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), architect of a company known by name to all, even those who aren’t into expensive cars or racing. At the time of the film’s events, however, the company and Enzo’s life are both threatening to spin out. Ferrari takes place in the weeks leading up to and during the 1957 Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile race through Italy. The company is tilting toward bankruptcy, while Enzo’s marriage is somehow on even shakier ground. As the Mille Miglia nears, Enzo stakes his professional and personal hope on the competition.
As played by Driver, Enzo is a man of reserved control, with the exception of an itinerant anger that bursts out at his drivers or his wife or anyone else around to hear. Penelope Cruz, playing his wife, Laura, wields her fury much more effectively, overpowering everyone besides Enzo. They are very nearly at war; the wound of a dead son and the salt of Enzo’s affairs prove impassable.
Directed by Michael Mann, Ferrari is a movie of elements: of metal, rubber, concrete, fire, oil, and water. The body and the blood. Its dark magic resides in the art of alchemy. Metal shaped into sleek form. Oil transmuted into a fire controlled by valve and piston. Power converted into velocity. The body broken, the blood shed.
Mann pares his art down to its essentials: control, power, technique, technology. Erik Messerschmidt’s camerawork is frenetic, lustful for bodies of machine and flesh. It doesn’t gaze; it wants to touch them, to reach out and feel the power coursing through veins, the heat welling through metal. The entire Mille Miglia sequence is shot extravagantly. The night racing is impeccable. This masculine elegy is a raging machine of a film, but that rage threatens to fracture the humanity of its characters.
The film opens and proceeds with dysfunction and strong wills. In an early scene, Enzo sits at Mass watching the priest deliver the liturgy of the Eucharist while his competitor, Maserati, tries to break Ferrari’s racing record at a track nearby. A starting gun fires and Enzo’s attention turns to his watch, while his eyes drill holes at the altar. The gun fires again, confirming what he feared: the track record has been broken. In Enzo’s attempt to reclaim the record later, his driver crashes and is thrown from the car. The death strikes a brutal juxtaposition: despite the promise of the Lord’s Supper, it is not Christ’s body that is to be broken.
This is a raging machine of a film, but that rage threatens to fracture the humanity of its characters.
To search for redemption and atonement here would be to misunderstand Enzo’s story. In fact, Ferrari bears more resonance with the threatened, fallen humanity seen in Genesis. His is a tale of competition, demand, and control. Struggles against others seem inescapable: Enzo against Laura; Laura versus Enzo’s mistress, Lina (Shailene Woodley); Ferrari and Maserati; Ferrari and Fiat; Enzo railing at the Italian press; old drivers fending off young drivers. The will to win versus the risk of death.
Death looms over Ferrari like a divine curse: Enzo’s older brother, killed by illness at a young age; Enzo’s son, also dead far too young. He reflects on an “evil afternoon” when others close to him died. Enzo suffers many griefs, but the closest he can come to a life-fulfilling mentality is when he extols the “brutal determination, a cruel emptiness” that it requires to win. That way of living may help him be victorious, but it also breathes its cruelty into his relationships, so that Enzo reenacts destructive patterns that we witness throughout the early families of Genesis.
The loss of Enzo and Laura’s son is complicated by the child, Piero, that Lina bears to Enzo. Lina probes Enzo as to whether he’ll recognize his son, but Laura demands that he never does while she is alive, thereby cutting Piero off from the full security of his inheritance. The three of them form a modern portrait of the battle between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Abraham, desperate for a son to secure all that God has promised him. Sarah, livid at the idea of her own son being supplanted. Hagar, cast off in obscurity. For his part, Piero unknowingly wrestles with his deceased half-brother just as Jacob fought with Esau. The older would lose the inheritance, but it would cause great familial pain.
The echoes go beyond this present conflict. Enzo’s own youth bears with it a vestige of Cain and Abel’s struggle in Genesis 4. Enzo never killed his brother, but he would outlive his sibling. It may seem like dormant history, but there’s a sense of competition that hasn’t yet quieted. Enzo’s mother remarks, not without spite, that the wrong son died. Despite his success, she’d rather Enzo be the one buried.
The fallen nature of humanity leaves its wreckage in every relationship in Ferrari. One character even hypothesizes that the events are “God’s way of punishing us.” But the characters choose these destructive ways. Circumstances aren’t the only thing to blame for the tragedies at hand; that cold determination and will to dominate combust to create a force that is difficult to stop. It propels, careens, crashes, and leaves detritus in its wake.
Ferrari is an acknowledgment that, even on this side of the cross, such destructive patterns of life are never too far from us. They are repeated every day under the auspices of corporate greed and petty jealousies, corrupt systems and personal grudges. Fittingly, the movie ends in a mausoleum. It is the endpoint of Enzo’s chosen road, a memorial to the ways of death.
But death is not the only path. We, like Enzo, are given a choice about which course to follow, whether we will cling to the ways of brutal determination or “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Let’s return to the Eucharist, where we are brought back to Jesus’ body and blood. His death is not a casualty in the pursuit of earthly dominance, it is a redemptive sacrifice willingly made so that we will be set free from sin, from legalism, and from the broken patterns to which humanity so readily succumbs. In Christ’s atonement is the offer of rebirth. This is a transformation greater than the alchemy of engines, a power that exceeds the reach of even the mightiest of men. It is a refutation of the ways of death; it is the promise, secure in Christ, of new life and new ways of living.