The illusion of ‘Reality’

In Matteo Garrone’s wry new comedy, the pursuit of fame is all too elusive.

A new comedy, 'Reality', directed by Matteo Garrone (photo credit: Courtesy)
A new comedy, 'Reality', directed by Matteo Garrone
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Somehow, I never think about Europeans watching television. In my mind, they are always sitting at cafés, drinking espresso, smoking and marching against budget cuts. But globalization means that they spend time watching inane TV like the rest of the world. And this is perhaps especially true in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi was not only a controversial and corrupt prime minister but also a media magnate who owned several television channels. So it’s not surprising that during the era he ran the country and its media, no one went broke underestimating the taste of the Italian public, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken.
It turns out that Italy has its own Big Brother, Grande Fratello, and a man who dreams about competing in the reality show is the subject of the new comedy, Reality, directed by Matteo Garrone.
Garrone burst onto the world scene with the starkly violent crime drama Gomorrah in 2008. In 2012, his film Reality won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in a highly competitive year. It’s very different from Gomorrah. Reality is a wry comedy about how the lust for fame has reshaped people’s lives. In Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, he featured a plotline about an ordinary man, played by Roberto Benigni, who is suddenly stalked by the paparazzi for no apparent reason and finds that the attention drives him crazy. Reality tells the opposite story: A man goes crazy because he does not realize his dream of becoming a television star.
It stars Aniello Arena as Luciano, a Neapolitan fishmonger whose family insists he try out for the latest edition of Big Brother. Arena, whose performance is utterly believable as this regular Joe who becomes progressively more deluded, has an amazing back story. Convicted of killing three men in mob-related violence in the 1990s, he is serving a life sentence in prison. He became a stage actor in a prison troupe and eventually won the lead in Reality. Maybe his experience helped him relate to his hero’s desperation. In any case, he gives an amazing, nuanced performance.
In the film, after a second audition at the famous Cinecitta Studios in Rome, Luciano is convinced that he is going to make it onto the famous show, even when his name is not announced as one of those chosen. Gradually, he begins to fall apart when the show continues without him.
It’s all very well done, with evocative character actors like those used by Fellini, and settings reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s 1960s comedies. The opening is especially impressive. Luciano and his family and friends moonlight as wedding entertainers, and the film begins with the wedding of a working-class couple who are given a theme wedding party where they are treated like 18thcentury royalty. The most celebrated guest at the wedding is a guy who appeared on a season of Big Brother, and so the seed is planted in Luciano’s mind.
The problem with the film, though, is that it’s all a bit obvious, and nothing could be an easier target than reality television. It’s like saying that the Kardashians are vulgar. Who’s going to argue with you about that? There’s a slightly patronizing tone throughout, since almost by definition, the filmmaker (and perhaps also any art house audience?) is not taken in by the allure of Big Brother. This isn’t a movie where you can truly identify with the hero: You just watch from a distance and feel sorry for him.
Arena’s performance is pure magic, and he is surrounded by a good supporting cast. Loredana Simoli is sympathetic as Luciano’s understandably exasperated wife. Giuseppina Cervizzi plays his niece, who is his biggest supporter, while Nando Paone plays his gentle cousin, who tries to reason with him.
But while Arena and the other actors draw you in, often it’s far too easy to see where the director is taking you. However, Garrone is a stylish and gifted director, and I’ll be looking forward to his next film.
REALITY Hebrew title: Reality Written and directed by Matteo Garrone With Aniello Arena, Loredana Simoli Running time: 116 minutes.In Italian.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.