Lamborghini: the Man behind the Legend

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Frank Grillo is the best thing about Lamborghini: the Man behind the Legend, putting force and subtlety into his portrayal of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the farmer’s son who wanted to make tractors, later the tractor manufacturer who became a producer of high-end sports cars.

Choose your metaphor – a vehicle that never quite gets going, a gear change fumbled, an engine running on the wrong fuel – this a strange film relying on prior knowledge, and lots of it, to fill in the gaps.

Back from the Second World War, young Ferruccio (played here by Romano Reggiani) disappoints his farmer father by proclaiming that he’ll not be taking on the farm when his time comes. Instead he wants to make tractors, armed with knowledge he picked up in the army and a talent for engineering he realises is the gift he must exploit.

Along with sidekick Matteo (Matteo Leoni), he sets about designing and building a smaller, more powerful tractor, sourcing the elements from scrapyards and painting the finished product in eye-catching orange. Along the way Ferruccio marries childhood sweetheart Clelia (Hannah van der Westhuysen), only for her to die in childbirth, at which point he takes up with the girl Matteo had an eye on, Annita (played by Chiara Primavesi as a young woman, by Mira Sorvino later on).

Writer/director Bobby Moresco’s film presents the success of the tractor business as a given and the action moves on some years, with Grillo now playing the successful engineer deciding to take on Ferrari at their own game. He’s spurred into this recklessness by an encounter with Enzo Ferrari himself, who belittles him with a “go back to your tractors, faremer,” after Ferruccio tries to suggest improvements to Ferrari’s frequently failing clutch mechanism.

From here the story picks up a bit of speed and much-needed dramatic heft as a race-against-time subplot about the design of the Lamborghini 350GT vies with another one about Ferruccio’s appreciation of a beautiful woman. Seemingly any beautiful woman.

Lamborghini playing with toy cars
Dream big!

It’s the transition between Ferruccio the ambitious kid and Ferruccio the still-ambitious success that’s badly handled, with it only becoming clear after a while exactly where we are in Ferruccio’s later career. Meanwhile, in what might be a dream sequence, or a reverie, or a fantasy playing out only in Ferruccio’s head, he and Enzo Ferrari (Gabriel Byrne, doing not much more than scowl) fire up their supercars and race in the night.

FYI: in these sequences – which are dotted through the film like advertising breaks – Enzo drives a red 1982 Ferrari Mondial QV and Ferruccio a blue 1985 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV. I found this information on the incredibly useful (the Internet Movie Cars Database). More generally, more information might have made for a tighter, easier-to-follow film – not necessarily car models, but a few dates, a vague idea about the technical challenges Lamborghini was trying to surmount and so on.

The film is also hamstrung by the decision to shoot it all as if it were an advert for Belgian lager – warm and clean, no hair out of place, everything shiny and new.

The strange this is, for all its shortcomings, the film does race by and it’s genuinely a shock to find it’s suddenly coming to an end. A gutsy Grillo performance is possibly the reason for that, or maybe Moresco is in the end justified by the wipe-clean artistic decisions he’s taken, wrongheaded as they seem.

Poor Mira Sorvino, nominated for a worst actress Razzie, does not deserve it (almost no one ever does). And the film’s subterranean ratings on rottentomatoes (6%, as I write) are too harsh too. Though in the end this is a film for the Lamborghini lover who already knows the Lamborghini story. Which is the biggest point against it.

Lamborghini: the Man behind the Legend – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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