Michael Mann (left) directs a racing sequence on location in Modena, Italy during the production of "Ferrari."
CNN  — 

Sometimes a film location deserves to receive equal billing to its stars. With “Ferrari,” the latest movie by US director Michael Mann, Modena, Italy, makes a strong case for itself.

Starring Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz, Mann’s biopic takes on the turbulent life of Enzo Ferrari, founder of the car manufacturer. Set in 1957 in the run up to the Mille Miglia race across Italy, events on track jostle for position with family drama at home, as Enzo and wife Laura grieve the loss of their son, and Enzo contends with his double life as father to a child with another woman. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August, Mann’s film arrives in cinemas over the Christmas holidays, with one eye on the Oscars.

Driver, American, and Cruz, Spanish, throw themselves into la vita Italiana, but when it came to location, Mann decided there would be no substitute.

Modena, in the heart of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, is integral to the Ferrari story. Enzo was born in the small city and built a workshop there when the former race car driver started manufacturing automobiles of his own. By the 1950s Ferrari had expanded into the nearby town of Maranello, becoming a force to be reckoned with, and Modena was the heart of Italian motorsport itself, with Maserati also calling it home. But while his cars would hurtle around Italy, and later, the world, Enzo was reluctant to stray far from Modena. So it was only right that when Mann was setting up “Ferrari,” he would bring the production to it.

Mann, 80, has his own deep connections with Ferrari. The Chicago-born director behind “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans” had been mulling a film on the founder for many years, and has called Piero Ferrari, the current vice chair of the company, a friend for decades (the young Piero plays an important role in the movie).

A scene in "Ferrari" filmed in Piazza Grande in the heart of Modena. The production shot on location for months during 2022.

The production descended on Modena for six months in 2022. “It’s a very small city, so we became known,” Mann told CNN. “When I’d go shopping at Mercato Albinelli … I was ‘Mrs. Mann’s husband.’ So it was very respectful.”

Helpfully, Modena, like many places in Emilia-Romagna, has not changed its appearance that much since 1957. The city’s cathedral still stands tall, the baroque Ducal Palace looms large, and plenty of streets are still covered in cobblestones. (One notable exception is the Museo Enzo Ferrari Modena, a hybrid complex of modern pavilion and renovated spaces, including the childhood home of Enzo, which opened in 2012 – understandably, it doesn’t feature in the movie.)

Modena, Italy - March 5, 2017: The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Modena Cathedral and Ghirlandina Tower on the Piazza Grande, Modena, Italy.

Most importantly, Modena is still filled with people who work for and love Ferrari. “Ferrari is the home team,” Mann said. “Many of the people who work at the factory (have been there for) two generations. There’s a very strong motor racing dialect.”

“When you’re there, it becomes painfully obvious what Ferrari means to not only the country but that place in particular,” Driver told CNN. “There’s a homegrown-ness element and attitude to Modena that I don’t think you would have gotten shooting (elsewhere).”

“Our set was populated with the town,” he added. “Most people were gone during August when we were shooting it, but we would have someone starting catering one minute and two weeks later they were in the picture.”

"Ferrari" features scenes in Modena as well as Maranello, a town south of Modena where Ferrari built its significant manufacturing hub.

The production hired former Ferrari Formula One chief mechanics for Michael Schumacher and Niki Lauda for small parts in the film, said Mann, and sourced engine blocks from the Ferrari Classiche restoration department. The barbershop Enzo would visit daily features in the movie, with its second-generation owner playing his father, shaving Driver.

“It was very, very local in this wonderful way,” Mann said. “You came to understand the wit, this kind of tough-minded attitude, that’s not too different from inner-city Chicago, where I grew up.”

Given all this, did shooting on location help Driver slip into character? And did the Modenese – not backward in coming forward – offer their own two cents on Enzo? “Yes and yes,” the actor swiftly replies.

For Cruz, Modena offered a more disquieting picture. The actress plays Laura, Ferrari’s wife and equal partner in the company at the time the film is set. Deep in grief after the loss of their son Dino to muscular dystrophy, she learns about her husband’s infidelity and seeks to leverage her assets while the business is threatened with insolvency.

“There was not a lot of information about her,” said Cruz. “I spent some time in Modena with Michael, with Adam, and Michael took me to a lot of places where she spent time. I just didn’t like the reaction from people. They just wanted to dismiss her and say she was difficult, she was a witch.

“Nobody talked about the pain that this woman went through, losing a child out of an illness when he was 20,” she added.

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in "Ferrari." The film sees the man dubbed "Il Commendatore" courting the press, who can at times be vicious in return.
Laura Ferrari, Enzo's wife, played by Penelope Cruz, in a scene set in Modena.

In the film, Laura is a force of nature. Cruz gives full voice to her grief, including scenes shot in the Ferrari family mausoleum (where Enzo is also buried today). “Ferrari” also wades into Laura and Enzo’s complex and ultimately enduring relationship. The director said he and Cruz met Laura’s doctor, who showed them never-before-seen love letters Enzo was writing to his then estranged wife up to two years before her death in 1978.

After her death, Enzo would give his name to son Piero, who he’d fathered with Lina Lardi, played by Shailene Woodley. Woodley met Piero, now in his late 70s, to discuss his mother. “The thing that was most affecting for me actually wasn’t the stories he shared or his testimony of her, it was the way that he teared up,” she said.

“That his mom was so protective of him and so able to keep him grounded, despite the chaos of what his childhood could have been, was a wonderful thing,” she added.

Enzo Ferrari, Peter Collins, Mille Miglia, Italy, 12 May 1957. Enzo Ferrari and Peter Collins. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)
Adam Driver as Enzo in Brescia in a recreation of the same event in "Ferrari."

Mann says his research dug so deep he learned from Lardi’s niece how her aunt would prepare food, and had Woodley replicate it on camera.

“We were so enmeshed in everything,” he said. “There’s so much verisimilitude that there’s a kind of wonderful organic osmosis that seep up into you …. You start truly believing, ‘I’m there, it’s 1957 and I’m in this world.’

“That creates that spontaneity and performance that I think audiences really sense. They believe this is true and it’s happening, and they can transport themselves into it – which is, for me, the ultimate objective.”

In the film, Enzo, teaching his son, says, “When a thing works better, naturally it looks more beautiful to the eye.” He’s talking about his cars, but it could also be Mann discussing one of his films. Engineered to the finest degree, they hide a lot of work beneath their ease and grace.

Modena was Enzo’s inspiration, as so it has proved for the director. “There’s poetry in the drinking water,” said Mann. “I can’t really explain it.”