Robert De Niro to play Ferrari on the big screen


Main image: Angela George

It had to be De Niro. The Taxi Driver playing The Godfather of motor racing.

A generation’s greatest actor has announced that his biopic of Enzo Ferrari will take precedence over all other projects.

As well as starring, he is to produce the film that reportedly will cover the period from 1945 – the year of the birth of Enzo’s illegitimate son Piero – to his death, aged 90, in 1988.

Perhaps the sidestepped pre-WWII period will provide the basis of a prequel: Enzo’s rise and fall – and ultimate failure – as a racing driver; his fixing of the blueprint for a successful independent racing team: sponsors and pay-drivers, coaxed and cajoled; the wounding rejections by FIAT and Alfa Romeo; and the mutual respect grudgingly shared with Tazio Nuvolari.

Plus icy Achille Varzi, warm-hearted Giuseppe Campari, whose death at Monza in 1932 profoundly affected Enzo, smooth polymath Count Trossi, and strutting peacock and, ahem, car and racing enthusiast, Il Duce Benito Mussolini.

Even avoiding the above, the film’s scope will remain widescreen.

Who will play Froilán González, the man who “killed my mother [Alfa Romeo]” at Silverstone in 1951?

Who will play ‘Fon’ de Portago, the ‘James Dean’ of racing, who invented designer stubble and whose calamitous crash in the 1957 Mille Miglia brought Enzo into conflict with a disapproving, denouncing Vatican: Il Drake versusIl Papa?

Who will play Phil Hill, the cerebral world champion of 1961, who walked away because of the corrosive internal politics?

Who will play John Surtees, the 1964 world champion and a modernising driving force that arrived at Maranello 25 years too early? He also walked away.

And who will play Niki Lauda, the abrasive 1975 and 1977 world champion, who walked away after, by his own admission, treating an ailing Enzo with scant respect?

The latter question I can answer: Daniel Brühl should reprise the role that was the high spot of Ron Howard’s recent interpretation of James Hunt’s 1976 title battle with Lauda. The rest of the cast remains open to question, to my mind at least.

Who will play mischievous 1958 world champion Mike Hawthorn and his Mon Ami, Mate Pete Collins; ill-fated Italian stallions Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso; team managers Romolo Tavoni, punched by Jean Behra in the pits at Reims, Eugenio Dragoni, detested and mistrusted by Surtees, and Luca di Montezemolo, the suave salve of the mid-1970s revival?

Who will play Stirling Moss, much praised by Enzo but handled badly, to the point of creating a mortal enemy; cheeky-chappy Jackie Stewart, whom Enzo called English during their unsurprisingly fruitless negotiations; and innocent abroad Gilles Villeneuve, the last of the daring garibaldini so beloved by Enzo?

Who will play Mauro Forghieri, the mercurial design genius who came in from the Maranello cold more than once; bellicose Henry Ford II, who vowed to “kick his ass” after Enzo jilted him at the merger altar in 1963; and Gianni Agnelli, deft boss of FIAT, who admired and understood Enzo and so saved Ferrari and its Scuderia after that FoMoCo no-go?

And they’re the easy parts.

Though De Niro will no doubt carry the film, it will live and die by its reconciliation of the global reach and glamour of the Ferrari brand – the Hollywood Technicolor bit, if you like: soaring violins, Puccini arias, fast-paced CGI-ed racing scenes – with the claustrophobia, mundane repetition, backbiting and backstabbing of Enzo’s increasingly insular life: the daily visit to the barber; the voracious verging on unhealthy reading of the newspapers; the same seat at the restaurant; the sparse office, badly/moodily lit.

It must bring to life the lesser-known inner circle: Enzo’s faithful chauffeur/retainer ‘Peppino’ Verdelli, always by his side, often sat at a nearby table; his long-time consigliere, the journalist Franco Gozzi; his right-hand man/mechanic/engineer Luigi Bazzi; his stylist confidant Pinin Farina; and Luigi Chinetti, his voice and face in America.

And then there are the women in his life: shrill wife Laura; soothing mistress Lina Lardi, mother of Piero; Fiamma Breschi, actress ex-girlfriend of Musso, whom Ferrari set up with a shop in Bologna and who was “one of the many”, according to Enzo’s Irish/British secretary Brenda Vernor.

The latter’s role must also be put up in lights.

If De Niro can unravel the harsh truths of Enzo’s secret lives, the lies, deception and early death of legitimate son ‘Dino’ therein – the black-and-white art-house (Italian dialogue with subtitles?) bit, if you like – motor racing will at last have its defining movie.

A film that’s not merely Grand Prix good, or Le Mans good, or Rush good – but Raging Bull good.


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