The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia, from November 3 to 19. Joshua Polanski will be reviewing for Midwest Film Journal live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage. 

An altogether infertile American studio film, Michael Mann’s Ferrari neglects the creativity and bravura in the racing that any good racing movie should have and substitutes stereotypical housewife and mistress roles for the film’s two women. 

In other words, it’s a Hollywood movie. 

Absent Marriage Story, Adam Driver gives the best performance of his career as Enzo Ferrari, founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team and the automobile line. He’s cold and almost crazed yet too much of a professional (and with too much backstory) to be the kind of monomaniac found in Werner Herzog’s early films. If you look past an absence of flip humor, Driver’s Ferrari has more in common with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark than he does with Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre. One gets the sense Driver really enjoyed playing the character too, more so than some of his other recent big-budget features. 

Ferrari, in an unexpected move for this viewer, doesn’t feed the standard product-friendly propaganda of the “New IP” films: Flamin’ Hot, Air, Barbie. That’s because it’s not so much a film about the Ferrari car company but a biopic of Enzo Ferrari, the man (adapted from the book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine). Still, it’s nice to know not every film attached to mega-power brands like Ferrari will find a common denominator in corporate self-flagellation. 

Apart from a half-baked accent from the latter, Penélope Cruz (as Laura Ferrari) and Shailene Woodley (as Lina Lardi) do what they can with their shallow parts even though the roles are unredeemable. Neither Laura, Enzo’s unhappily married wife, nor Lina, his mistress with whom he has a child, seems to have a life beyond their relationship with Enzo. Their goals, problems and even emotions follow him like a shadow and reduce two complex lives into footnotes on a conceited business mogul’s Wikipedia page. 

Cruz and Woodley both would have been better served with dynamic characters that merit the emotional response they both draw from Enzo (Lina of passion, Laura of disdain). Instead, they are handed stereotypical 20th-century women: the housewife, who I believe is seen outside of the family home only once, and the mistress and would-be lover. The problem isn’t that the historical Enzo loved (at least at one point) both of these women; the problem is that they’re monotonously boring characters.

The film’s at its worst on the racetrack, a huge misstep for a film whose central figure’s life centers around the equator of high-speed thrills. The overpowering sounds of the machines can’t blanket the reliance on mundane ESPN-style racing, which often feels just one coverage shot better than the average televised Grand Prix. A relatively limited number of shots come from the perspectives of the drivers — an acceptable creative decision since the film revolves around Enzo but a depleting one nonetheless. Cinema racing should be, well, cinematic. Is that too much to ask for?

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, and East Asian & Middle Eastern film. He is currently based in Akron, Ohio.