Federico Fellini claims onscreen that he invented the word “paparazzo” in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, his bittersweet portrait of hedonism during Italy’s postwar boom. The name stuck and went viral. If today we can instantly picture Liz Taylor and Richard Burton strolling down the Via Veneto or Peter O’Toole swinging a punch at a pesky photographer, it’s thanks to the lasting fascination of the pictures snapped by Rino Barillari and his paparazzi cohorts.
He is justly celebrated in The King of Paparazzi — The True Story, a heady collection of footage from Istituto Luce and his own 500,000-photo archive, which goes beyond the Dolce Vita period to chronicle the rise of drugs, Mafia and the Red Brigades in Italy. After a bow at the Rome Film Festival, this fast-moving doc and its astonishing hero should titillate period aficionados.
Co-directed by Giancarlo Scarchilli (known for his fine doc on actor Vittorio Gassman, Vittorio Recounts Gassman) and Massimo Spano, who co-wrote and produced, this is one of the most memorable revisitations of Rome in the ’60s since Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. The unexpected coda to the photographer’s career, when he switched from stalking visiting celebrities (who had dwindled to a mere trickle) to tackling darker material, will particularly resonate with Italian viewers. Most of the later events are of a violent nature — the assassination of politician Aldo Moro at the hands of the Red Brigade, youths dead from overdoses in old cars and on dead-end streets, Ali Agca’s attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the Mafia bombs that killed magistrates Falcone and Borsellino.
Barillari, still today a spry figure with a pencil mustache, is a humorous and old-fashioned raconteur. He describes his arrival in Rome as a penniless teenager from a southern town, and how he discovered an aptitude for snapping pictures of tourists at the Trevi Fountain. Big Hollywood productions like Ben-Hur and The Bible were bringing stars to Rome in droves. Photos capture Nureyev and Bobby Kennedy walking down the street together, John Wayne and Gregory Peck, Jayne Mansfield and Ava Gardner, Alfred Hitchcock and the Beatles. Barillari was an expert at provoking dramatic reactions from his subjects. He laid ambush outside restaurants at 3 a.m., waiting for the scoop of an illicit couple emerging arm in arm. Often his victims fought back against the invasion of their privacy. In the course of his long career, Barillari counts 70 broken cameras, 11 broken bones and 160 trips to the ER.
A little disconcertingly, none of the amusing images is captioned, and the young divas flit by so rapidly it takes a quick eye to identify them. Their incessant parade is briefly interrupted by contemporary interviews with Italian actors, directors and political figures like Bernardo Bertolucci, Giuseppe Tornatore and Carlo Verdone.”Via Veneto was like a theater,” he says. But by the late ’60s there were no more glamorous characters around to shoot. Instead, his restless lens captured the spirit of student protests and riots, the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, the murder of Pasolini, a poetry festival featuring Allen Ginsberg and laced with drugs, alcohol and violence.
The final scenes show Barillari, older now, suiting up and slinging his cameras around his neck, ready to stalk the mean streets. One has to wonder what he finds to photograph. Ironically, but fittingly for the age of reversals, it is now the divas like Robert De Niro who laughingly take their picture with him.
Tech work seems to take its cue from Fellini and his affectionate-critical view of the Eternal City. The film benefits from the sprightly, unsentimental editing of Ugo De Rossi (who edited Fellini’s Ginger and Fred) and Andrea Guerra’s slyly nostalgic score, with echoes of Nino Rota.
Production companies: Michelangelo Film, Istituto Luce Cinecittà
Cast: Rino Barillari, Bernardo Bertolucci, Giuseppe Tornatore
Directors, screenwriters: Giancarlo Scarchilli, Massimo Spano
Producer: Massimo Spano
Director of photography: Carlo Montuori
Editor: Ugo De Rossi
Music: Andrea Guerra
World sales: Istituto Luce