It was midnight and I was sitting outside Bar della Pace, located on Piazza della Pace, just off Rome's Piazza Navona, when Rino Barillari walked by. Here was "the King of Paparazzi," the most famous paparazzo in the world or, at least, the first, the man who supposedly inspired Fellini to invent the name Paparazzo, which translates roughly to "pest."
Even if I didn't know him, I would have fixed my eyes on him—there was a certain charismatic menace to the way this barrel-chested figure moved down the street. He spotted someone he knew, waved, and called out a goodnight without breaking stride; then he and his leather jacket disappeared around a corner into the night.
I had met Barillari 10 days earlier at the Café de Paris on Via Veneto. I was in Rome to visit the set of Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic (it opens at the end of the year and stars Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, and Willem Dafoe), and I had prepared by immersing myself in the city's cinematic history, of which Barillari is a peripheral, but somehow essential part.
By the time I'd arrived, an extensive photo shoot had already taken place, Barillari posing with his old-fashioned camera. The camera now rested on the table before him while he smoked and talked to a large, attentive audience that included his friends and interpreters. My companions, Tom Dey and Coliena Rentmeester, husband and wife, discreetly snapped photographs while Barillari told tales of his greatness. Every click of the camera sent a jolt of energy through him.
"Do I make money?" he said. "I have three ex-wives and two mistresses, so of course I make money!"
And: "Every night I drink twenty to twenty-five glasses of champagne. Last year I had a blood test and they found traces of spumante."
And: "La dolce vita is impossible to see or touch—it's a way of life."
About Fellini, he was ambivalent.
"In La Dolce Vita the photographers want to do the shot at any cost, without any sense of respect for their 'victims.' I don't recognize myself in this portrait. I'd rather call myself an 'images thief.'"
"Fellini was a real paparazzo himself," he added. "A great talent scout."
Later we all wandered up the street to Harry's Bar. Harry's (along with Café de Paris) was the scene of the original dolce vita, in the late fifties and early sixties, when Hollywood productions were being shot in town and people like Frank Sinatra were hanging out. Now there is a Hard Rock Café, and those establishments feel as though they exist within quotation marks.
At Harry's, Barillari was greeted with the warmth of a longtime regular. Downstairs on the walls are framed photographs of various celebrities shot mostly by Barillari on the premises. He took particular delight in one in which a starlet is mashing her ice cream cone into the face of an intrusive paparazzo who is, of course, the King himself.
"That," he remarked drily, "was a clash with Sonia Romanoff on Via Veneto in 1963."
Cigarette smoldering, he pointed to another picture: "This is Peter O'Toole, this is me, and this is his wife...I destroyed their marriage."
In Rome, I like to travel by scooter. Rome is a town of surprises, of unplanned treats. The scooter is the ideal vehicle for improvisation. Up above there are swarms of swallows flying back and forth over the Colosseum or the Piazza del Popolo, vanishing briefly in the light like venetian blinds being turned from down to up, and below there are swarms of scooters buzzing toward the Trevi Fountain, or through the deliciously knotty streets of the Jewish Quarter.
My scooter shop is on the Via della Purificazione, near the top of the Spanish Steps. Its walls are covered with photographs of American movie stars on scooters. There is James Dean, looking sultry, and Charlton Heston, goofing with a big smile, taking a break from Ben-Hur. John Wayne sits somewhat incongruously in a Confederate cap. Rock Hudson looks demure in a military uniform. And then there is the famous film image of Gregory Peck with Audrey Hepburn holding on tight.
I had arrived in Rome on Thanksgiving morning, and the sky was overcast and prone to downpours. I peered at the wet, gray cobblestones and knew that the scooter would have to wait. Instead I bundled into a taxi with my girlfriend, Elizabeth, and Tom and Coliena and headed straight to Cinecittà Studios. It seemed strange to leave Rome immediately upon arriving, but I consoled myself with the thought that we were going to another kind of Rome, a sort of parallel universe.
There is the city of Rome. And the city of Rome as it appears in movies. There are the many archaeological layers of Rome. And, in turn, those many layers reflected in film. But when talking about movies in Rome, all roads lead to Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City.
The movie began to take shape within months of Allied troops entering Rome in the summer of 1944 and went into production in January 1945. It mixed documentary footage of German troops in Roman streets with the fictionalized story of Italian resisters on the run from the gestapo. Open City announced the arrival of the new aesthetic of Italian neo-realism. Federico Fellini has a script credit. Given the searing literalness of Open City, and other immediate successors such as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, it's a strange leap to the increasingly surreal cinematic experiments of Fellini's subsequent work.
Years later André Bazin, the French film critic, remarked in an article about Open City, "As soon as it formed, the skin of history peels off as film."