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Federico Fellini and the fascinating cinematic origins of the word 'paparazzi'


Sometimes cinema strikes the perfect cultural chord, accessing a contemporary pertinence that helps them to achieve a legacy greater than they could’ve ever imagined. Such can be seen throughout the history of cinema, from high-budget blockbusters such as Die Hard to well-realised coming of age cornerstones like Clueless to total cinematic surprises such as the found-footage horror Paranormal Activity

Often, this leads to iconic film phrases entering the mainstream, with ‘the dark side’ only being used following the release of Star Wars in 1977 and the word ‘Catfish’ escaping its aquatic definition upon the documentary of the same name in 2010. Whilst these examples relate to slang and phrases of pop culture, there are many other instances where cinema has gifted us everyday words that have suffused into everyday life no matter the field of discussion. 

One of the most peculiar examples of this comes from Federico Fellini and his 1960 classic La Dolce Vita where he helped don the word ‘paparazzi’. The film, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, follows a restless journalist with a particular interest in a young female actor. La Dolce Vita also stars Walter Santesso as a character named Paparazzo, a determined, annoying and fearless reporter on the hunt for the best photographs. Remind you of anyone?

According to BBC News, Fellini stated in his autobiography that he got the name from an opera libretto and “sounded just right”, whilst noting elsewhere that ‘Paparazzo’ sounded “like a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging”, much like the annoying reporters themselves. Elevating the word to cultural significance, Time Magazine released a feature calling the paparazzi “a ravenous wolf pack” in 1961. 

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Whilst the word is certainly thought to have originated from Fellini’s classic, a scholar of the iconic director, Peter Bondanella argues in his book The Cinema of Federico Fellini, “It is indeed an Italian family name, the word is probably a corruption of the word papataceo, a large and bothersome mosquito. Ennio Flaiano, the film’s co-screenwriter and creator of Paparazzo, reports that he took the name from a character in a novel by George Gissing”. The character in reference is Signor Paparazzo from George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, a novel thought to have contained the inspiration for the ubiquitous word. 

Released just three years before , La Dolce Vita is recognised as Federico Fellini’s most well-known film, even if it doesn’t best represent the iconic filmmaker. Utilising elements of neo-realism as well as a sprinkling of surrealism that he would later be known for, the film shows Fellini still getting accustomed to his own style and form. 

Watch the trailer for the classic film right here.