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It may come as a surprise to some that "Ferrari," Michael Mann's long-gestating biopic of sports car magnate Enzo Ferrari, is as much a marriage melodrama as it is a thrilling racing picture. But fans who are intimately familiar with the American auteur's work will recognize that the romantic partnerships in his films have always been as important as the action.

The wives and girlfriends in Mann's films are strong, powerful counterparts to the male characters, and in Laura Ferrari, played by a wild-eyed and steely Penélope Cruz, Mann has found his most formidable wife yet — she is as much the namesake of the film as her husband, as they ruled the Ferrari automotive empire as equals, in business at least.

Adam Driver stars as Enzo Ferrari in the film that takes place over several significant months in 1957. Enzo is pushing 60, fending off competitors like Maserati, and juggling two women at once: his longtime mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has fathered a son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese), and tempestuous Laura, who has a tendency to greet him in the morning with a round from her pistol fired into the wallpaper.

Laura has her own very good reasons for her blackened moods — she and Enzo are grieving the loss of their son Dino from an illness, and Enzo has checked out, building a new family behind her back. When we meet the couple, they are professional partners more often than they are lovers.

The screenplay, by the late Troy Kennedy Martin, adapted from the biography by Brock Yates, is set around an inflection point — and tragedy — in Enzo's career.

Seeking to save his company's reputation, Enzo puts together a team of elite drivers to compete in the thousand-mile Mille Miglia road race, to establish Ferrari as the premier manufacturer of the fastest racing cars. His latest addition to the team is an aristocratic Spanish playboy, Alfonso de Portago (terrific newcomer Gabriel Leone), who wants to prove himself to Ferrari, and arrives with the starlet girlfriend and attendant paparazzi in tow.

Mann visually expresses the complex, contradictory philosophy embodied in the "terrible joy" of racing. Working with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, they craft a classical look for the majority of the film, the crimson of the cars set off by warm earthy tones and pops of yellow. Every inch of the sumptuous, authentic sets and costumes are designed to perfection by Maria Djurkovic and Massimo Cantini Parrini.

But the racing scenes take on an eerie, otherworldly quality, mimicking the deep focus vision of a racing driver seeking the next few miles of road. The sky warps and wobbles sickeningly at full speed, time and space stretching unnaturally. The presentation of this pursuit is uncanny, both alien and deeply divine, reminding us of the razor-thin line between life and death.

Driver delivers a grounded, dropped-in performance as an Italian man 20 years his senior. He carries Enzo's internal strife, his tenderness, his grief, which he only expresses privately.

If Enzo is the ego, Laura is the id, and Cruz tears into this role with ferocity, embodying the sorrow that weighs on Laura, and the fiery spirit that explodes often — it's simply a pleasure to watch her upbraid a bank teller. She keeps Enzo on his heels, but he always returns to her, a deep mutual respect beneath all the pain and history between them.

"Ferrari" the film is like the car itself, boasting a gorgeous, shiny and stylish surface. But underneath, there's a hot, rumbling engine, pumping with blood and oil and heat, proving that our Mann still has plenty of gas left in the tank.

4 stars out of 4
Rated: R for violent and sexual content, and language.
Where: In theaters Christmas Day.