La Dolce Vita and Paparazzo

Paparazzo (back seat) enjoys a quiet moment.

Welsey Shaw is always on the run from “the paps.” We see them on TV all the time, chasing after all sorts of celebrities: the Paparazzi. It’s constantly surprising to me how few people know the origin of the term “paparazzi.” They think it means something in Italian. Well, it doesn’t.

“Paparazzi” is actually the plural of “Paparazzo,” and Paparazzo was a character in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece about post-war decadence La Dolce Vita. If you’ve never seen it run, don’t walk, to the nearest video store. This is easily one of the greatest films ever made, and it will mesmerize you, even if you don’t like “foreign” films, even if you don’t like “arty” films, or black and white. So many movies from this period are called “luminous” that it’s become a cliché, but this one defines the term. Marcello Mastroianni strikes the perfect balance between charming and vapid, suave and troubled. Doesn’t seem like such a hard performance to pull off? Watch the great Daniel Day Lewis try to channel a similar character in the recent Nine. (Producer Dino de Laurentis, by the way, left the La Dolce Vita after Fellini refused to cast Paul Newman as the lead!)

Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubini, a playboy “celebrity journalist” who spends most of his shallow time chasing stars and living what’s closer to La Vida Loca than La Dolce Vita. He longs to be a serious writer, but also longs, in one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen in any film, to connect, to really connect, with people. In this scene a woman tells her she really loves him, but cannot say it to his face and has to go into another room in a cavernous dwelling where echoes allow voices to travel great distance. This star can only say certain things to him when he can’t see her, and even then she is quickly distracted by another man.

"I promise you, everything tonight is off the record."

Marcello has a sidekick, Paparazzo, who either rides with his friend or follows along on his motorcycle snapping pictures of the celebrities Marcello interviews. In the early 60s, these photographers on their motorbikes, chasing the rich and famous for their picture magazines, were a recent phenomenon, and “Paparazzi,” the plural of the character’s name, quickly caught on, even with people who’d never seen the movie. It’s still what they’re called. That’s the origin of the name.

Chasing a new starlet.

La Dolce Vita has scenes that are deeply sad, as we see the life of the newly-minted jet-set is pretty empty. Maybe this is not news, but it was in 1960. There are also scenes of “debauchery” that are pretty tame by today’s standards: hard-core drug use isn’t even depicted, and the raucous gathering at the end is like a frat party today. Still, Fellini captures the concept of decadence more effectively than later filmmakers who resorted to overt depictions of drugs, sex and violence. La Dolce Vita is so powerful because it is about non-stop partying, yet we see no one is actually having any fun. They know it and we know it, and that’s the unspoken connection between film and audience. The most important things, observes John Ralston Saul, are never actually spoken. Fellini knew this. Today’s writers and directors generally don’t.

Ladies' Man

By the way, while Paparazzi doesn’t mean anything in Italian, Paparazzo does, sort of: it’s the word for “sparrow” in one particular dialect. Fellini said he thought the character, hopping about covering the stars, looked like a sparrow. Today’s stars would probably say “vulture” is more accurate. Welsey certainly would. Or would she? And again, if you haven’t seen La Dolce Vita, you’re missing something great. Check it out. And when you’re done with that, watch 8 1/2, Fellini’s next film, also with Mastroianni and an even greater masterpiece, if that’s possible. Don’t bother with Nine.

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