Aryan Tauqeer discusses the LFF 2023 Surprise Film Ferrari: Michael Mann’s meditative drama about the titular automobile magnate’s familial and professional strife, and his racers that stand at the intersection between the two.
Around halfway through Michael Mann’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller The Insider, based on an expose of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company’s coroporate malfeasance and its subsequent revelation by one Jeffrey Wigand, the action crescendos into an unfurling of passions that, in the Mann vein, is driven by the clashing of interests personal and professional. Furious at the resistance to his advocacy for Wigand’s whistleblowing on the part of his colleagues at CBS’ 60 Minutes- namely, lead reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer)- producer Lowell Bergman relinquishes any pretensions as to his position at a programme that prided itself upon being willing to transgress borders geographic and institutional. As the film cuts between their workplace disputes and the very subject of what they discuss, we are rendered privy to the ways in which the intricacies of journalistic practice and hierarchy allow for a distancing from the precarity of what forms a story. At this point in the film, Wigand (Russel Crowe) has already been forced to shift houses, been stripped of healthcare and schooling benefits afforded to his children by B&W, had his wife confronted by an anonymous fax threatening to kill his family, and stalked by bagmen ostensibly employed by B&W. The fraying of nerves and gradual disanchoring from security that a man like Wigand might endure, however, isn’t a priority for CBS’ corporate leadership, for whom a corporate whistleblower is merely an asset for a potential episode of 60 Minutes- and one that grows costlier by the day, as B&W’s legal team mounts piles of evidence to discredit both Wigan and Lowell by means of defamation, slander and mere brute-force intimidation. Attempting to humanize Wigand’s iniquities in front of his employers, Bergman stresses upon the stress of the situation:
“Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure, Mike. What the hell do you expect? Grace and consistency?”
It’s a retort that one might be inclined to view as a coda for the Mann oeuvre as a whole, where even professionals trained for an existence within a sphere separated from society at large and characterized by solitude are susceptible to yearning for a different kind of life, an subsequently fall prey to the treacherous lure that is dreaming. As much as his style has evolved dramatically since his first film to centre on this obsession, Thief, much of his concerns have remained constant. That film’s significance as the birth of Mann as an unparalleled image-maker and maestro of montage in the post-New Hollywood American cinema is immediately apparent, but what has become clear in recent years is the degree to which Thief looms over Mann’s men. Here, the possibility of both a sublimation within domesticity and compensation for labour are introduced and, to some extent, achieved, if only temporarily. It is an outlier, in that it is the only entry in Mann’s filmography where some degree of satisfaction with one’s life is achieved-the island in Max’s postcard in Collateral and Neil’s fluorescent coral of Fiji in Heat are actualized. Yet, the disintegration of its protagonist Frank’s (James Caan) personhood, externalised as wordless tableaus of destruction, rebukes the notion that achieving normalcy is possible for not just Frank, but anyone taking down the path he took. Though the filmmaker’s sometimes infamous attention to detail provides each of these films with a certain air of the eerily hyperreal, it wasn’t until The Insider that Mann directed his microscopic attention to detail towards fictional serial killers and bank robbers to real-life crimes- the kind committed with such unassuming confidence by obscenely powerful corporations that they are difficult to even classify as crimes. The truth of the matter, in this particular instance, is no less distressing than its filmic portrait- take the following extract from the article written by Marie Brenner for the May 1996 issue of Vanity Fair, which documents her brief but telling meeting with Wigand:
“In front of us, on a large screen, a basketball game is in progress. “They kept me up until two a.m. last night. Just when I thought I was going to get some sleep, the investigators called me at midnight. At six a.m. I was gotten up again by someone from 60 Minutes telling me I should relax. How am I supposed to relax?” Wigand stares at the TV screen. “You are becoming a national figure,” I say. Wigand suddenly sputters with rage. “I am a national figure instead of having a family. O.K.? I am going to lose economically and I am going to lose my family. They are going to use the trump cards on me.”
At the beginning of Mann’s 40-year passion project Ferrari, finally realized with Adam Driver at as its psychological centre, the founder of the eponymous automobile manufacturer finds himself within rather dire traits that are not dissimilar to those that Wigand finds himself in, not least in the potential destruction of both his family and Ferrari. Though the film takes place over the period of a few months in 1957, it carries with it the weight of entire lifetimes, reflected most prominently in Driver’s rendition of Enzo Ferrari. A heavyset, stone-faced businessman, he seems to already have one foot in the grave- his shock of white and grey hair betrays the pressures of a marriage on the rocks, an affair on the verge of being revealed, a son who has no idea who his father is and a company bearing his name that is on the verge of collapse, owing partly to its expenditure on refining its racecars to almost impractical detail and its subsequent failure to manufacture more than a 100 cars per year. The delineations between himself and the name Ferrari seem to have melted away entirely, as Pietro Scalia’s crosscutting makes so brutally clear. Attending Mass, Enzo himself and his colleagues set their wristwatches to the distant but sure hum of rubber skidding against tarmac outside the church- their faith in the automotive and God is one and the same, and the sacrificial lamb might soon be Enzo.
In what is widely recognised as Mann’s lasting contribution to cinema as an artform, Heat, there’s a principle verbalised that applies to every single one of Mann’s obsessive, hyper-competent and often self-destructive professionals: “All I am is what I’m after”. In the instance of Enzo Ferrari, the nature of what exactly he is driven to accomplish is never quite clear- of course he seeks to accomplish perfection in the engineering of the cars built by the company he started from the ground up. At the same time of course, he also seeks to try and preserve his marriage with his wife Laura, a woman who- in more ways than one- embodies the Mann protagonist herself, driven to maintain some semblance of normalcy even as it becomes increasingly clear that their relationship has decayed into something hateful and rotten. The emotional fabric of Enzo’s life, however, is split in two- just as he tries to clean up the debris of a marriage shattered by the death of his infant son, he also maintains the role of a father in his affair with Lina Lardi, with whom he seems the shadow of a younger man. The camera often tracks Driver in constant states of motion, striding with conviction towards fleets of crimson racing cars- and yet, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in just him. Instead, it seems to lumber around garages and pit stops as if assuming the role of a war documentarian, locating the grime and dust coating the face of Ferrari’s drivers, and focusing on Enzo as a general of a platoon composed of young men- men with faces free of wrinkles but with eyes that seem to have already reconciled with near-certain death. As obsessed as he is with the internal turmoil of the outsider, Mann is no less concerned with the sheer physicality of the experience, and nowhere are these qualities better espoused than in the sequences where drivers hurtle towards vistas of green in metal death machines, teeth slightly stained with blood because of how hard they’re gnashing them and hands holding onto steering wheels for dear life.
Tenser still is Scalia’s cross-cutting, which is uncharacteristic for not just a biopic or a film about a sport (since the film treats racing less as a source of entertainment than as an art with life-and-death stakes for the painters involved), but in Mann’s filmography- it cuts so often between not just Enzo’s own personal crises and the imminent physical crises of his drivers, but between his wife Laura’s own discovery of who Enzo is beyond purely an artist of automobiles and between the inception of a national identity based on the national pride that Ferrari embodies. Of course, that pride is one of great precarity- as Enzo’s own interactions with the public makes clear, this is a film concerned with not just the history of the artform that is racing but with the Italian postwar period- its indignities, its traumas and its pride. One might ostensibly compare it to Ferrara’s Pasolini, but the distinguishing factor is the viscerality- as with Public Enemies, we are situated squarely in the making of history, with all the bloodiness and contradictions that such a project entails. “As they say these days in Italy, gentlemen- take off the white gloves!” bellows J. Edgar Hoover in the latter film, proudly encouraging the nascent FBI to draw inspiration from the fascist policies of the Mussolini regime. In Ferrari, the white gloves are buried under rubble and industrial decrepitude, and have been swapped for the gloves of steelworkers and racecar drivers. The self-hagiography of the fascist figurehead, however, finds its analogue in Enzo’s iron grip upon his drivers- when a test drive early in the film ends in derailment and death, he affectlessly suggests that a replacement should come in the next day.
Yet, the limits of the ruthless self-imposed discipline that Mann’s men abide by (and usually stray from) is motivated by tragedy so sprawling in its fallout that any attempts to restrain it through rigorous denial is bound to fail. Here, that denial manifests in how Enzo processes the death of his infant son, Dino- as with business, grief is compartmentalized and scheduled, to the extent where his and Laura’s daily visitations of Dino’s grave occur entirely separately. This is where Mann’s propensity for melodrama-as-character breaks through the steeliness of Enzo’s façade. As if at a confessional, Enzo betrays the source of the worries turning his hair white, and mourns not just his son but his failure to save him from disease- something that is also at the heart of the rift between himself and Laura. The night before the Mille Miglia, the drivers set to represent Ferrari the next day- including the icon Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone)- write to their wives and families, in letters that read almost like those that conscripted soldiers might write the night before they depart for a war where they will more than likely end up crippled, defeated or dead. The novelistic accumulation of detail in Mann’s melodrama exhibited in his analog work- namely, The Insider, where characters succumb to the pressure of the personal and political blurring boundaries- though, is substituted for an altogether more experiential mode of emotional strife, the unsaid resounds with deafening silence. The contradictions that might render this a failure as a dramatization of Enzo’s life, then, are those between the viscerality of what Enzo is responsible for and the supposed lack of interest in his personal life. As the employment of the over-the-shoulder tracking shots (a well-worn Mann signature) indicate with such clarity, Enzo’s approach to anything that isn’t racing is to storm through it in the hopes that he might be able to outpace it. Driver’s performance- with the exception of a torrid marital dispute towards the end of the film- is so funereal in nature that its reservedness might easily be construed as disinterest. Yet, Mann, the capital-R Romantic that he is, is just as captivated by the contradictions in Enzo’s relationships with his wife, mistress, step-child and deceased son, which is why he treats a domestic spat with all the melodramatic intensity of a high-speed car crash- and whose fallout is as wounding emotionally as the recreation of the Mille Miglia’s fatal crash is physically.
In much the same way as Wagner synthesized once disparate elements of the musical and the poetic into the Gesamtkunstwerk that is the opera, Mann unifies characteristics of analog and digital in Ferrari that render it as much a meditation on the techniques used by himself and his collaborators as much as it is a reflection on how much his characters perpetually exist on the verge of mortality and the immortal expression of values, symbols and entire philosophies greater than themselves. In Blackhat, Hathaway’s (Chris Hemsworth) bookshelf in prison is lined with volumes of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard- if there is an expression of philosophical clarity in Ferrari, it might be that of Theodor Adorno. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes of how the principles of self-preservation, the a motivating force so immense in its power that it redirects life towards a perpetual struggle towards it, is purely “the law of doom thus far obeyed by history”- an ethic expressed with such reverent horror in the death of Alfonso de Portago, which is the kind of setpiece that those otherwise perplexed by the film might identify as the clear mark of a film by Michael Mann. Yet, the voyeuristic appeal of seeing a key moment in sporting (and indeed modern Italian) history is sharply dispelled by the sheer shock of its unflinching tableau of viscera and wreckage. It’s a reminder that as much as Enzo Ferrari remains to this day as an almost godlike figure, whose every routine is dissected endlessly, he is still only, painfully, human, and the limits of his control over (as he proclaims) “the metal I made” cannot face up to the terrifying unknowability of the cosmos. One might be reminded of the adage expressed in Miami Vice: “Probability is like gravity- you cannot negotiate with gravity”. In much the same way, the unpredictability of the races in Ferrari (despite their ostensible recreation of history) is precisely what enforces the very subsuming of emotion that defines the Mann protagonist- at the pit stop, there is no time to ponder one’s marriage or one’s legacy or the sensation of victory or anything else that detracts from the competitor speeding towards you in your side-view mirror.
For as impressively visceral as these showcases of movement are, however, the film is fundamentally a work of immense, overwhelming quietude- one composed of grace notes and funeral wreaths. Enzo is a man haunted by death at every corner, and as nonplussed as Mann has seemed in recent interviews about the potential limitations of his own age, it is evident that this is a film made by an artist coming to terms with a legacy that was both built by himself and shaped by the tides of history into something he isn’t quite sure about embracing. That is, of course, what its most admirable quality- it isn’t a work interested in bridging contradictions or resolving any of its inherent complexities, in trying to arrive at the determination of whether Enzo Ferrari was an artist, a businessman, a homewrecker, a devoted father, a representation of Italian national identity or a horseman of death. Instead, it is a work that places one squarely within the tumult of a passion with the capacity to kill, and forces you to try and reckon with, above all else, the feeling of what it means to commit oneself to it.
There is a sequence around the midway crescendo of Ferrari that encapsulates how its sweeping, romantic tapestry of technology’s augmentation of fundamentally human impulses clashes against the very fallibility of these impulses. It manifests in an opera performed in the Teatro Pavarotti, attended by Enzo, Enzo’s mother, Laura, and Lina. As the camera hangs onto the very edge of these performers’ movements (approximating the same hyperreal combination of archaic subjects filtered through contemporary technology), we observe how each of these three audience members, locked in a destructive love triangle of sorts, react to the opera in ways that dissolve the borders between space and time. Memories of Dino and Enzo together, the birth of Enzo’s illegitimate son Piero, the first time Enzo and Laura met upon the rubble of the war and the death of Enzo’s brother in the war sift together, distinguished by the expressions of anguish, confusion and understanding that the opera seems to mould into the faces of its spectators. It is perhaps the finest demonstration of the film as a picture of enormous, overwhelming emotion- the kind that can so easily be misconstrued for gauche sentimentality. That emotion, of course, is expressed in the tenor of an old man reflecting on the damage that it has wrought throughout his life- and I’m not just referring to Enzo here. Stress fractures in titanium and the metals used to craft the engine of a Ferrari are life-threatening, but they are tangible, and therefore liable to be resolved. No such simple resolutions exist for the fractures within a life, especially not one as subject to forces economic, political and painfully personal as Enzo Ferrari’s. Ferrari is a film concerned with how we live and die by catastrophes that are all too logical in their exacting control over the time that we have left to spend, and yet it is the very impenetrability of the illogical- marital disputes, the question of what a child grows up to become and the definition of one’s identity by their art- through which our mortal presences are suddenly brought roaring back to life. I expected Ferrari to be an expression of Mann’s unwavering belief in the beautifully irreconcilable quality of these principles- what I did not expect from the film was for it to not be a last hurrah, to not be mere grace notes, to not simply be the apotheosis of Late Style. Instead, Ferrari is an affirmation that Michael Mann is one of cinema’s last true poets- someone whose art expresses itself not in syntax that is comprehensible in the same way as other artists, but through a collective rhythm that is felt more deeply than anything else.