A heroic battle to save the Ferrari company is signposted but other than that, it is best to go in cold. We know the Ferrari car manufacturer is struggling and, in a display of quintessential Italian machismo, Enzo Ferrari bets it all on the outcome of the 1957 Mille Miglia, a 1000-mile endurance race from Brescia to Rome and back.

As the film opens, Enzo (Adam Driver) is finding comfort in the arms of his mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley). They share a son, Piero, but Enzo cannot claim him while his fortunes are tied to his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), who co-founded the company.

The company needs to sell more cars to fund its racing arm and the only way to do that in car-obsessed Italy is to win. Enzo is a former racer who understands strategy and the courage it takes to never brake and back off. He also understands his drivers’ addictive need for speed and what elites they are. Your best friend is killed and on Monday you give up racing forever; by next Sunday you’re racing again, he says.

Driver, who appears in nearly every scene, plays Ferrari as a silver fox ­­– a tough, selfish, sullen man who treats those around him with coldness. He carries it well and the awkward (foolish!) Italian-accented English he first affected in Gucci is less bothersome here; by the end of the film it has wound down to become unnoticeable.

The casting is one of the film’s great strengths. Cruz, as the abandoned wife Laura, is grief-stricken, fiery, and smart. Her scenes with Enzo are well-written and substantial, and she is a match for Driver’s icy reserve. Woodley was an odd choice to play an Italian mistress but she radiates an earthy calmness you can see would appeal.

The personal and professional interweave as Laura finds out about Lina and Enzo’s son. It is a bitter pill, given her son with Enzo, Alfredo, died from illness, leaving him without an heir. Enzo is managing all this while overseeing the engineering and priming his best drivers, including star recruit Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) and old hand Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey).

Ferrari will enter four cars in the Mille Miglia. It is up against Maserati, which has Stirling Moss as one of its drivers. You settle in for the race, which is as splendidly filmed and paced as you would expect from director Michael Mann, best known for stylish crime thrillers like Heat and Public Enemies. The period details are magnificent, and it is a joy to watch the camera work around the cars – red turbo rockets without even roll cages to protect the drivers – tearing up the Italian scenery and rattling over cobblestones.

The race starts, and Moss in his Maserati loses a brake pedal and rolls into a field. The Mille Miglia is Ferrari’s to win. The final stage of the film is so stunningly executed it takes your breath away. It derails expectations and turns a predictable story about the triumph of the underdog into something much more significant.

Ferrari is in cinemas now.

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