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Celebrity Chronicler Gives Rome Another Taste of La Dolce Vita

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 29, 1995; Page A01

ROME -- It was just like old times. Rino Barillari, self-styled king of Italy's street photographers, swooped down on his prey, a famous model at an outdoor cafe. As his camera clicked, a hunky bodyguard heaved a bucket of ice at him. Barillari kept snapping and caught on film the stream of water heading his way.

The dousing made news, not because the model was the target of photography but because the target of the bucket was Barillari. He has achieved a high status seemingly impossible among the paparazzi, the intrusive practitioners of a widely despised profession. After 35 years of sticking a camera in the face of celebrities -- to immortalize them slurping spaghetti, wandering around drunk or, better yet, doing both in the company of someone else's spouse -- Barillari himself has become a star.

Or, more precisely, part of a myth, a living link to a coveted past. His antics remind everyone that not so long ago this city was an international gathering place of the glamorous. The years were the 1950s and '60s, forever memorialized by Federico Fellini in his famous movie, "La Dolce Vita." It means "the sweet life," and a nosy photographer in the film was named Signor Paparazzo, a word for a pesky insect. The title has been applied to his ilk ever since.

Italy, emerging from war and poverty, was infatuated with celebrity. Now, in this crowded, traffic-clogged and noisy city, Romans speak longingly of those days as an age of innocence. A golden era has grown up in the mind, perhaps as an antidote to the less glorious years since: the corruption scandals and political drift of the 1990s, the money grubbing and over-building of the '80s, the terror of the '70s. When Barillari gets splashed with ice water, smeared with ice cream, pelted with a wine glass, slammed with a chair, pummeled with fists or just plain insulted by an irritated celebrity, it makes everyone feel good -- even him, to some extent. Rome can believe it is young again.

"Who would care about this city if not for us paparazzi?" Barillari asks with a stereotypical paparazzi swagger. "People hate us, you say? You can only truly hate someone you love."

Defending the myth is hard to do. Great herds of movie stars no longer roam the Via Veneto, nor pad through winding alleys to Alfredo's restaurant to feed on its famous fettucine. Here and there, you can spot a scrawny model, one of the divas who seem to be standing in for actresses in the Roman heart. Maybe a loose Sylvester Stallone. But not very often an Anita Ekberg, after all these years still regarded as the Great White Blonde of Italian cinematic dreams. No Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa (a pair soon to appear on a tourist ad for the Rome area). No Liz, Rita, Ava. The kind of stars whose pictures could be sold to a dozen news wires and to a hundred magazines.

The movies and the stars, particularly the Americans, left Italy as it became an expensive place to do business. The 1970s "decade of lead," when kidnappers held the rich for ransom and terrorists shot up central Rome, further suffocated the city.

By the time peace returned, Italy was a different place: urban, educated, entranced by television, harder to impress. Divorce, once forbidden in this Catholic country, was legalized. "Temptation was what la Dolce Vita was about. Italy is beyond temptation now," said Barillari.

Still, Rome demands to see approximations of la Dolce Vita, and Barillari walks the streets looking for big game. He packs a little bag with an arsenal of cameras, as he has most evenings since snapping a picture of an American at Trevi Fountain in 1960. He earned $20 for the shot, an unheard-of amount for a migrant from impoverished Calabria. He was only 14 and had acquired a taste for glamour operating a projector in a movie house in his home town. "Once you see the movies, Calabria seems a very small place," he said.

The projectionist job gave him an invaluable edge: familiarity with movie star faces. He always knew where to point his camera. He also came to know every doorman, every restaurant owner, every waiter, every street vendor, cops, all the advance scouts for the paparazzi.

He is 49, a father of two grown children and walks with a limp. The piratical gait results from a stabbing at a soccer riot of skinheads he covered not long ago. He greets almost everyone with a kiss and a compliment. For added charm's sake, he spices his Italian with a few English expressions. No problem! You make me cry! I'm sorry! Catastrophic! You are my destiny!

Barillari defends his trade with a blend of a gotcha journalistic code and medieval morality. The trend toward recording frontal nudity, particularly of politicians, is no particular bother to Barillari. "We supply reality. A picture of someone in a pose, all perfect and nice, says nothing. When I shoot someone, they react, people see how they are. What are these politicians doing taking off their clothes on the prows of yachts and on the beach? They know they are in the public eye. They pay a price," Barillari said.

One sultry night recently, Barillari made the rounds, mostly on foot. He was remarkably bouncy after a full day's work at Il Messagero, the Rome newspaper, where he does a lot of spot-news photography. He comes alive at night.

He carefully scanned the street-side restaurants and cafes with big bulging eyes, eyes that scream Good Peripheral Vision. At Dal Bolognese, a restaurant in Piazza di Popolo, he spied a slender actress over the ornamental bushes. No difficulty there. She was clearly itching to be photographed.

Off to Due Ladroni, a trendy eatery near the Tiber River. A TV announcer mugged for the camera. Over to Campo di Fiori, a big piazza. Not much.

His cellular phone rang -- cellular phones are a great advance for paparazzi because tipsters can reach them anytime, anywhere.

"I'm nearby. I'll come up from Chiesa Nuova," Barillari said to the scout. "Is he with a woman?"

Someone had spotted Vincent Lindon, an actor and apparent fiance of Princess Caroline of Monaco. Barillari had photographed him a few days earlier, seemingly in the company of two women.

Barillari limped along rapidly for a repeat. His phone rang again. Disappointment. "Without a woman. All right . . ."

Lindon was at Pizzeria Montecarlo, a nice touch for someone with a love interest in Monaco. Barillari moved in, close. The flashes lit up everyone's pizza. It was over in a moment, except that Barillari decided to have a beer and toast Lindon. The actor exploded with a variety of multilingual epithets. "No problem," said Barillari in false English. "I only speak Italian."

Tourists at adjoining tables looked horrified. Italians looked amused. Barillari seemed satisfied. It was not like when Frank Sinatra or John Wayne punched him, or Ava Gardner kicked him, but it would have to do.

At Bar della Pace, Rome's current Spot To See and Be Seen, he held court. A bearded prince -- a real one, Barillari said -- pulled up a chair. An actor arrived fresh from playing "The Cherry Orchard." A blonde in a plastic miniskirt whispered in Barillari's ear. He gave her his card, emblazoned with his picture. Posed. Smiling in a tie. No paparazzi stuff for him.

An aspiring actress, escaping from an aspiring boyfriend, landed on his lap. She said Barillari is not like all the other paparazzi. He knows more about Rome than anyone. He knows everyone. He is simpatico, to boot.

"You are my destiny," he responded, all the while scanning the crowd with those incredible 3-D eyes.

It was 2:30 a.m. and Barillari is supposed to get to Il Messagero by 8. They want shots illustrating how the Romans deal with the latest heat wave. The return to mundanity shook him. "What the . . . It's hot every year. Why do we do this story?" he asked to no one. No matter. He roamed the streets until 5:30 and made it to work on time.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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