Ferrari (R16, 131 mins) Directed by Michael Mann **½

Enzo Ferrari said other automobile manufacturers started race teams because success would lead to sales.

But at Ferrari, the sales of the road cars were only ever a way to raise money to put his racing cars on the track.

Enzo began his journey as a test driver for Alfa Romeo. He was ferociously competitive, but the deaths of friends took away his joy in racing. The birth of son Alfredo – Dino – was Ferrari’s final impetus to hang up his gloves and devote his life to building and managing race teams.

Scuderia Ferrari was his in-house team at Alfa Romeo during the 1920s and 1930s. Ferrari as we know it today was launched in 1947.

The intensely private Enzo was a masterful PR man who played the press like a violin. And as long as Ferrari’s machines were winning on the track, then Enzo – and wife Laura – would live at the heart of a whirlwind of public opinion and scandal.

But there was a tragedy at the heart of the family. Dino was born with muscular dystrophy. He died in 1956, at the age of 24. Dino had been a promising engineer, who his father intended would take over the company. There are Ferraris running today, powered by engines which bear Dino’s name.

Maybe in response to Dino’s illness. Or maybe because, y’know, men, Enzo had taken a mistress in 1945 and fathered another son. This was common knowledge among Enzo’s friends and colleagues, but Laura did not find out until after Dino’s death. By which time the company was – again – on the verge of bankruptcy.

It is here that Michael Mann chooses to open Ferrari. There are a few flashbacks and pre-ambles studded around the hefty running time, but Ferrari is mainly concerned with the implosion of Laura and Enzo’s marriage – and the way it overlapped Ferrari’s campaign to win the 1957 Mille Miglia (1000 Mile) endurance race, which might boost the coffers enough to delay the creditors for another year.

Mann is clearly trying to emulate the success of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari here, but with Enzo as the hero in his own story. Even though Ferrari takes place 10 years before the events of Ford v Ferrari, against the backdrop of a very different race, Mann is happy to borrow a key scenario from that film and pretend – wrongly – that it occurred in 1957.

Which maybe points to the real problem with Ferrari. This film just doesn’t have a satisfying story to tell us. Ferrari skips between the domestic drama, the boardrooms and meetings – and then to the track, without ever weaving these three strands into a whole. The writers are relying on the racing to provide a satisfying conclusion to the film. But the podium of the 1957 Mille Miglia was over-shadowed by a grotesque accident, so Ferrari ends on a note that is awkward at best, and tasteless at worst.

In the lead, Adam Driver is at least a great fit for the title role, locating Enzo’s heart in a handful of smaller, domestic scenes drawn from surviving son Piero’s memoir of his father.

But Driver is eclipsed by Penelope Cruz as Laura. Cruz seems to have stormed in from some darker, louder and bloodier production. Her role is under-written and unforgivably dismissive of Laura’s own grief, but Cruz isn’t going to let poor writing stop her stealing the film out from under Mann’s nose every chance she gets. Cruz is so combustible here, you’ll wonder what the hell Enzo ever saw in poor Shailene Woodley’s mistress Lina.

As you would expect, Ferrari comes to life in the racing scenes, though the CGI is patchy and more obvious than I was expecting.

If there’s a documentary series on Ferrari’s life out there in the thickets of the internet, I’ll happily watch it. But this Ferrari is hobbled by the inconvenient tragedies of real life.

Ferrari opens in Kiwi cinemas nationwide on January 4.

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