Among all working U.S. filmmakers, few have built as faithful and fervent a following of critics and cinephiles as Michael Mann. Mann’s acolytes have secured such sleekly hard-boiled genre works as “Thief” and “Heat” a permanent place in the American canon, while staunchly advocating for the merits of more divisive titles like “Blackhat” and “Miami Vice” — the latter, released to mixed reviews and moderate box office in 2006, today attracts reverent crowds at repertory screenings. Such is the power of Mann’s men (and women): At 80, Mann has made just 12 films in a career spanning five decades, but his legacy is wholly secure.
The Academy, however, has never quite joined the cult. Only once has a Mann film connected with a wide swath of Oscar voters: That would be 1999’s scorching Big Tobacco takedown “The Insider,” a box-office disappointment that nonetheless boasted enough artistry and gravitas to land seven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director — only to lose them all, dented in part by a controversy over alleged factual distortions that haven’t outlasted the film’s reputation.
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The only Mann film to win an Oscar, meanwhile, is 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” a big, beautiful, Daniel Day-Lewis-starring adaptation of the epic James Fenimore Cooper novel that looked like prime Oscar bait in the early fall, only to be near-forgotten by the time nominations rolled around — scoring just one, for Best Sound, and taking it home. Otherwise, his films have either under-performed (see “Ali” and “Collateral,” each rewarded with a scant two nods despite strong pedigrees) or been ignored entirely. (He was further nominated as a producer of Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes epic “The Aviator”; that lost too.)
That record is not exactly accidental. Mann specializes in tough, terse, unsparing genre cinema, which is rarely the Academy’s bag. (Though even with that prejudice noted, he’s been unlucky: Five years before “The Silence of the Lambs” ran the table at the Oscars, Mann made the first Hannibal Lecter film, the icy, unnerving “Mankiller,” which made nary a ripple with audiences or awards voters.) Mann doesn’t do gentle sentiment or uplift; even his baitiest projects (and early in 2001, we all thought a Muhammad Ali biopic could hardly miss) are couched in voter-repelling violence and malaise. That’s the way Mann and his admirers prefer it: In that regard, Oscar-less-ness is a badge of honor.
All of which is to say there are are no safe bets to be made regarding “Ferrari,” which bowed at the Venice Film Festival Thursday — Mann’s first film in eight years, and his first to premiere in competition at a major festival since his debut “Thief” played Cannes way back in 1981. Like “Ali,” it finds the filmmaker once more dipping a toe into prestige-biopic waters, and once more doing it on his terms, with imposing if not necessarily crowd-pleasing results.
Focusing on a key year in the life of Italian race-car magnate Enzo Ferrari — taking in his crumbling marriage to longtime wife Laura, their joint grief over the death of their son Dino, his recognition of an illegitimate second son with mistress Lina Lardi, and the endurance of the Ferrari brand through a period of financial trouble and shocking sporting tragedy — it’s grand-scale, potentially melodramatic material that Mann tells with a typically cool head, its contained feelings only intermittently bursting to the surface. Some will appreciate its restraint in this regard; others may wish for more conventionally cathartic storytelling and, in Adam Driver’s chilly, aloof Ferrari, a more outwardly sympathetic protagonist.
Either way, we’re a long way from the more rousing, rah-rah racing spectacle of 2019’s monster hit (and Best Picture nominee) “Ford vs. Ferrari,” in which Enzo Ferrari featured as a supporting character. Others may wish to draw comparisons to Ridley Scott’s recent “House of Gucci,” another study of an iconic Italian business empire that attracted much buzz and precursor attention, only to be largely dismissed by Oscar voters. (It got a single nomination for makeup and hairstyling.) But “Ferrari,” as stoic and disciplined as “Gucci” was flagrantly kitsch, isn’t that movie either — though both, interestingly, lead with Driver quietly underplaying against bigger, brasher competition in the ensemble.
Neither Driver’s performance nor the late Troy Kennedy Martin’s screenplay — adapted from Brock Yates’ biography “Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine” — go easy on the protagonist’s cold self-involvement and lack of empathy for those around him, a brave creative choice that nonetheless may not win Driver points from the acting branch, who tend to prefer their performances more emotionally demonstrative.
Enter, then, Penélope Cruz, the raging storm to Driver’s phlegmatic calm, and the ultimate heart of a film that sometimes prefers to keep it hidden. As the angry, lonely, grief-ravaged Laura, emotionally estranged from her husband even before she learns of his second family, she enters the film with guns literally a-blazing, fiercely voicing her rage in a ripe Italian accent. Cruz gets to steal several more scenes with such gale-force diva-tude — seething even when silently signing financial affidavits — before she gets to more quietly unload her anguish.
The Academy likes Cruz in one of two modes: the entertaining Mediterranean spitfire act that won her Best Supporting Actress in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” and the more nuanced, spiraling emotional chaos that recently nabbed her a Best Actress nod for “Parallel Mothers.” Her work here (which will presumably be pushed in supporting) effectively combines the two, making it “Ferrari’s” grabbiest For Your Consideration component.
No other cast member, from an underused Jack O’Connell to an oddly accented Shailene Woodley, gets much of a look-in. The real other stars of “Ferrari,” unsurprisingly for a Mann picture, are its ace below-the-line contributors, from cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (an Oscar winner two years ago for “Mank”) to veteran editor Pietro Scalia (twice a winner, for “JFK” and “Black Hawk Down”) to production designer Maria Djurkovic (a nominee for “The Imitation Game”).
It’s Scalia’s typically vital, rhythmic cutting — essential to its white-knuckle racing sequences, climaxing with a vivid, unshakable restaging of the 1957 Mille Miglia crash — that make the most obvious play for recognition here, in tandem with sharp, juddering sound work from a team led by two-time winner Andy Nelson (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Les Misérables”). Those, after all, are the two awards that “Ford vs. Ferrari” took home, though one need only refer to Ron Howard’s 2013 racing biopic “Rush” — a snazzy tech showcase that won an editing BAFTA and received precisely zero Oscar nominations — to remember that much depends on how the film fares overall.
So it’ll be interesting to see how “Ferrari” performs and gathers momentum as hot distributor Neon steers it through the season, from Venice to a plum closing-night berth at the New York Film Festival to an eventual theatrical release on Christmas Day. If audiences take to the film, the film could be in play for nominations across the board, all the way up to Best Picture and Best Director — where Mann’s branch peers might feel he’s owed another admiring tip of the hat. If not, well, it could come through anyway, as “The Insider” did all those years ago, or fall by the wayside: Through his career, Mann has known all awards-season outcomes except outright victory.
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