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Film Reviews: Ferrari & The Color Purple

Arts Review2023-12-29By: Marc Glassman

Blockbuster Season

Ferrari & The Color Purple

By Marc Glassman



Michael Mann, director

Troy Kennedy Martin, script

Starring: Adam Driver (Enzo Ferrari), Penelope Cruz (Laura Ferrari), Shailene Woodley (Lina Lardi), Sarah Gadon (Linda Christian), Gabriel Leone (Alfonso de Portago), Jack O’Connell (Peter Collins), Patrick Dempsey (Piero Taruffi), Benedetto Benedettini (Alfredo “Dino” Ferrari), Giuseppe Festinese (Piero Lardi Ferrari)

Michael Mann’s Ferrari evokes the glamour of Western Europe in the Fifties when fashion, cuisine, sporting events and high culture reached phenomenal popularity and relevance while people were still digging out of the rubble caused by World War Two. Hollywood and mass circulation magazine like Life and Time remained focused on devastated Italy, France, Germany and England with the new American empire embracing the best aspects of the new Europe as its people searched for their new identity. Think of that period now and you can’t imagine it without Sartre and de Beauvoir espousing existentialism in Paris, the startling success of Milan’s Fashion Week, high stakes gambling on the Riviera, Callas and Schwarzkopf singing opera, and the extraordinary growth of sportscar racing through the legendary companies Ferrari and Maserati. It’s a time infused with wild romanticism and sophistication, when the elite still were clothed in tuxedos and elegantly designed dresses and behaved as if being Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman was the proper aspiration in life.


Mann’s film is set in 1957, at a time when the legendary racing car owner and visionary Enzo Ferrari was still dealing with the death of his son, Dino, who had already been designing new engines and helping to run the company before his death at 24 from muscular dystrophy. As the drama begins, it quickly becomes clear that Enzo (Adam Driver) is leading a double life, still married to his fierce protective wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) but spending most of his spare time with his lover Lina (Shailene Woodley) and their son Piero. There is a financial crisis at the company, which Laura, who handles such things starts to deal with, while Enzo continues to work on improving the cars because a major race is due to be run. That race is the Mille Miglia, a nearly 1000-mile round-trip tournament run from Brescia to Rome and back through the twisted narrow roads of northern Italy. To say that drivers risked their lives running that race, and others, is obvious: that’s part of the fascination which attracted people to it.


For Enzo, winning the Mille Miglia becomes his way out of his financial dilemma–a win will secure more investors—while dealing with Laura’s anger at finally discovering that he has a lover and another son (who is already 11). Mann lovingly recreates Modena, the town in the Po Valley where the manufacture of sports cars took place, and the drivers who chose to run the extraordinary, often fatal, races were living. Among the drivers employed by Ferrari were Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey), the “old man,” quietly confident in his abilities and glamorous Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), a Spanish aristocrat who was having an affair with the Hollywood actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon). Mann does a wonderful job giving a sense of Modena, the Ferrari factory and the camaraderie between the men.


Mann is a consummate professional, noted for his action-filled set pieces and this film is no different. Much of the second half of Ferrari is taken up with the running of the Mille Miglia through a famously treacherous, highly dangerous terrain that was bound to cause accidents. The domestic melodrama of Enzo Ferrari moves into the backdrop as the racing cars and drivers take centre stage, playing out their destinies, with some dying and one emerging as the winner. Spoiler alert: this was the final Mille Miglia race because of a terrible tragic loss of lives caused by an accident; Mann’s crew painstakingly recreates that event.


Ferrari is an uneven film, which swerves from melodrama to high tragedy without ever finding its focus. Perhaps Adam Driver—what an appropriate name for an actor playing Ferrari—wasn’t properly cast. He plays the part, perhaps too well, as a secretive man, who can be definitive but is clearly conflicted by his life choices. The death of Dino Ferrari weighs heavily on Enzo and Laura; you can see that much of their emotional lives have been destroyed by his passing. We find it hard to identify with Driver’s Enzo, and yet he’s the focus of the drama.


There is a great performance in Ferrari and it’s delivered by Penelope Cruz. She is astonishing in the film: a figure of fury and passion, who fights hard to maintain control of her life, which is being taken away by Enzo’s other love life and, overwhelmingly, by Dino’s death. You can see the brilliance, the loyalty and gorgeous sensuality of a woman, who is losing everything through no fault of her own. Cruz seizes this story and makes it her own. A racing car drama shouldn’t make us think of Greek tragedy, but Cruz gives a performance of that depth and power.


In a year of fine films by octogenarians and nonagenarians, with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon), Ken Loach (The Old Oak), Ridley Scott (Napoleon) and Frederic Wiseman (Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros) producing fine work, Michael Mann may have outdone them all with Ferrari.


The Color Purple

Blitz Bazawule, director

Marcus Gardley, script based on the novel by Alice Walker and the play by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman

Starring: Fantasia Barrino (Celie Harris-Johnson), Taraji P. Henson (Shug Avery), Danielle Brooks (Sofia), Colman Domingo (Albert “Mister” Johnson), Corey Hawkins (Harpo Johnson, H.E.R. (Squeak/Mary Agnes), Halle Bailey (Nettie Harris), Ciara (older Nettie), Jon Batiste (Grady), Lou Gossett Jr (Ol’ Mister Johnson), David Alan Grier (Rev. Samuel Avery), Deon Cole (Alfonso)

Alice Walker’s intensely moving The Color Purple about the harsh childhood and young adulthood of Celie, a Black woman in early 20th century’s American South, and her eventual triumph and redemption is one of the most controversial and deeply loved stories of recent years. A Pulitzer Prize winning novel and a much-lauded Steven Spielberg 1980s film, it has been successfully adapted for Broadway as a musical, while being constantly banned in U.S. libraries and schools for dealing with rape, incest, homosexuality, violence and racism. You could say that Walker’s subjects shouldn’t work for musicals but that’s only if you’re not an opera lover. If there’s a problem with this musical film adaptation of The Color Purple, it’s that the lesbian content and male sexual violence towards women are softened, possibly to the detriment of the story.


There’s much to praise in this version of The Color Purple. Walker’s story is so over-the-top that it lends itself to the heightened sensibilities of musicals. Poor Celie is raped continually by Alfonso, who she thinks is her father—it’s only quite late that she discovers that he’s her stepfather and so her two children are not products of incest. Celie is sold off, or married, to “Mister” (Albert Johnson), a widower who beats her and tries to rape her sister Nettie, after she also flees the family home when Alfonso attacks her. Celie’s emotional rescue after Nettie is forced to depart is, ironically, “Mister’s” lover Shug Avery, a terrific and totally sexy singer, who becomes her protector. Eventually, Celie leaves with Shug after decades of abuse by “Mister.” But Shug and Celie’s transformative love for each other is depicted as only friendship, a surprising omission in a contemporary production.


As Celie’s and Shug’s lives improve, there’s more than a hint of Christian redemption in their fates. As the awful male patriarchy—Alfonso, “Mister” and others—get older or die, the women become the rightful inheritors of property and land. The fates of Celie, Shug and others—Nettie, the feisty larger-than-life Sophia, the clever Squeak—become intertwined as their love of each other and themselves becomes justified. Nearly every emotional peak and melodramatic plot twist is perfectly placed for a song, often accompanied by a dance. Musical genres from blues to rock to big gorgeously voiced ballads are used, with great spirit and energy, in this film. Not all of it is perfect but most of it is resolutely entertaining.


The Color Purple should be celebrated as a truly Black production. Ghanian director Blitz Bazawule has done a remarkable job in visualizing the old South—the look is extraordinary, seemingly realistic but with enough fantastic elements to make the film work as a musical. The performances by a range of extraordinary Black actors and singers are persuasive with several being noteworthy for their movement from realism to the fantastic as the film’s story plays out. Colman Domingo, a brilliant talent, is effective as an abusive husband, a drunk, a somehow sexy philanderer and a reformed older man—all in this one film. Fantasia is a fine Celie—better as a vocalist than as an actor, but overall persuasive. And Taraji P. Henson is terrific in the showy part of Shug; you love her in a sexy red dress in a big musical number and, dressed down, as a supportive friend for Celie.


The Color Purple is a strange story that works more as poetry or propaganda than as a realistic depiction of life in the old American South. Even as a musical, it lurches from one set piece to another without a sense of rhythm or an overall style. We go from jazzy numbers in juke joints to scenes of domestic abuse to extreme emotional outbursts, all within minutes. Despite its variable tone, the tale has become an American classic. As such, this musical version is a worthy addition to the growing number of adaptations of the original novel. It should be seen and, in its way, celebrated.




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