Rea realises a lasting passion

Derick Allsop sees a film celebrating grand prix racing's Prancing Horse

Picture it: a multi-tiered fountain reaching high in the imagination of a possessed young man and suddenly, atop this staircase of fantasy, appears Shirley Bassey, in sparkling scarlet dress, singing "Yes, I own a Ferrari".

Now you might think it would take a possessed mind to conjure such an image for public consumption, and you might be right. Then again, the creator might have Italian blood coursing through his veins, he might understand what it is to believe a motor car can be bestowed by angels, and he might have a boundless range of expressions for that devotion.

Over the years, these columns have endeavoured, doubtless inadequately, to convey to a world beyond Ferrari's embrace what this compulsion is all about. Chris Rea is having his go on the big screen. The rock singer- songwriter has abandoned the "Road To Hell" for the track to paradise.

La Passione, which premiered at the London Film Festival at the Odeon Leicester Square, is a surreal self-indulgence; possibly half an hour too long and even then perhaps too much for those who do not comprehend, or do not care to comprehend. It helps to be a Ferrari freak and an Italian. Better still, a Ferrari freak and an Italian raised in another country, thereby accepting a profound responsibility as protector of the faith. Rea willingly accepts that responsibility.

The son of an Italian ice cream maker in Middlesbrough, he inherited the bond with Ferrari, though not an unbreakable commitment to the family business. So it is that in this semi-autobiographical film, young Pino Maldini - as all Italians, Rea was captivated also by beautiful football - is initiated by his papa and the rest of the menfolk by watching a race on television.

The attentive Pino is told to look and listen for the Ferrari, that awesome power, that distinct sound, and that incomparable appearance, the shark- nosed car. And the greatest of the Ferrari drivers, the German Count, Wolfgang Von Trips. And what colour is the Ferrari, Papa? Red, son, replies papa, splendidly portrayed by Paul Shane, holding up his glass of wine. "Blood red."

All right, so it may sound cliched. Parts of it are a mite slushy, and when Pino grows up to become Jo he at times cuts a rather pathetic figure. But then exaggeration is the vehicle for this film and emotion is the driving force. It is unashamedly emotional, a sensation intensified by the beguiling music. If the movie leaves you unconvinced, try the CD.

Rea harnesses all the connotations he can muster to project his meaning of Ferrari: religious, sensual, nationalistic. Enzo Ferrari beckons him from the altar and you are reminded of Nigel Mansell's famous assertion that a call from Ferrari is like a call from the Vatican. The screen is a mosaic of classic cars, prancing horses and dancing girls.

Like Rea, Jo Maldini grows disenchanted with the ice cream trade and, to the consternation of his father, seeks fulfilment elsewhere. Instead of being lured to the music business, Jo has the idea of producing aftershave and perfume - labelled, of course, La Passione - from his father's vanilla ice cream potion. His inevitable success gives him the wealth to realise his dream of owning his own Ferraris.

Still, however, he mourns the death of Von Trips, on the very threshold of the world championship (13 spectators were also killed in the accident at Monza, in 1961). It is only after a visitation by the ghost of the German driver that Jo is relieved of the burden, and he symbolically leaves his tiny model of the shark-nosed Ferrari, minus a tyre, on the gates of Von Trips' tomb.

Rea's Ferraris are featured in the film and he had built a replica of the No 4 shark-nosed car driven by his hero. He acquired much of the stunning, previously unshown footage from the Von Trips Foundation. The shots in the hills above Maranello are equally evocative.

Rea stresses this is his first venture into movie making - he wrote and produced it, as well as scoring and performing the soundtrack, and could not resist a fleeting appearance, a la Hitchcock - and that it cost a modest pounds 1.5m. He presents this as a simple fantasy, simply fun, to be simply enjoyed. The ultimate, tantalising fantasy is of Ayrton Senna sitting in the cockpit of a red car.

Rea maintains his is not an obsession but a passion. "You only have to have a small part of Italian in you to feel it," he says. "It's in the soul. And perhaps, as a second-generation Italian, I feel it even more."

Ferrari's relatively inauspicious performances in Formula One's recent past have served to confirm the marque's unique standing, a phenomenon more to do with mythology than logic. And that is the point. Michael Schumacher may revive the car's racing fortunes, but its place in the hearts and consciousness of its disciples is assured regardless.

Patrick Head was among those in the audience who could not help wondering if Rea's effigy of the Maldini family locality - cooling towers spewing smoke - did not depict the landscape of Didcot, where the Williams team were formerly based. Williams occupy the seat of power in modern grand prix racing, but Rea contends they will never challenge the spiritual pre-eminence of Ferrari.

"Williams is just a mechanical operation," he said. "Ferrari is an opera. There is no comparison, is there? Ferrari is Italy on LSD."

The drug hooked some distinguished drivers, including Ferrari drivers past and present, to the premiere. Along with Mansell was Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks, John Watson, Derek Bell and Eddie Irvine. Also under the spell were Bernie Ecclestone and Eddie Jordan. And there, in person, was Shirley Bassey.

Rea's father, alas, has failing eyesight and was not at the showing. Rea, like Jo, is comforted in the knowledge that his papa does at least approve of the direction he is now taking. "He's heard the music and he thinks I'm getting there at last."

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