Directed by: Matteo Garrone.
Written by: Matteo Garrone & Massimo Gaudioso & Ugo Chiti & Maurizio Braucci.
Starring: Aniello Arena (Luciano), Loredana Simioli (Maria), Nando Paone (Michele), Nello Iorio (Massimone), Nunzia Schiano (Aunt Nunzia), Rosaria D'Urso (Aunt Rosaria), Giuseppina Cervizzi (Giusy), Claudia Gerini (TV hostess), Raffaele Ferrante (Enzo).
Matteo Garrone’s Reality is about the fame obsessed culture that we live in today. It looks at an average Joe – Luciano (Aniello Arena), who is happy with his lot in life. He runs a modest fish stand in Naples, loves his wife Maria (Loredana Simioli) and his children, and has a large, bickering extended family he enjoys. At parties, he dresses in drag to amuse the children, and anyone else around. It is a modest life, but he’s happy and fulfilled. That is until he auditions to be on the hit Italian version of Big Brother. We first see that glint of envy in his eye at a wedding, where Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante) shows up as a special guest – he was made a star by the show the previous year, and now his life consists of doing these sorts of appearances, and being whisked away on a private helicopter. His kids convince Luciano to audition for the show himself – and after a successful first one, he is given a callback in Rome – which he feels he has nailed. There is no way they are not going to pick him to be on the show. He is so convinced that he about to become a star, he gives up everything else in his life. And yet, the show never calls.
Most of the movie takes place in between his auditions and when Luciano has finally go completely over the edge into some sort of insanity. He knows he has nailed the audition. That the producers, and the psychologist who interviewed him, got to know the “real” Luciano – meaning the reality TV show version of himself that he starts to think is more real than reality. So when the producers don’t call, Luciano thinks there must be a reason for that. He becomes increasingly paranoid – he thinks that every person he meets must have been sent from the show to see how he really is. He wants them to think he’s outgoing, gregarious and charitable – so he gives a bunch of poor people most of his family’s stuff. And yet, they still don’t call.
The film reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) – which becomes more prophetic with each passing year. Both films center around a man who he is convinced he is destined for greatness – and even though he is constantly rejected, never quite seems to realize it. When we see some clips from the show Luciano thinks he is supposed to be on, we know right away that there is no mistake that he wasn’t picked. The people on the show are all younger – and more beautiful – and are willing to degrade themselves in every conceivable way to be on TV. Well, so is Luciano, except for the young and beautiful part. He’s never going to be on the show because people don’t want to see someone like him on TV.
Aniello Arena, who plays Luciano, delivers an excellent performance. Currently, Arena is serving time in jail for a double murder – he used to be a Mafia hit man. Garrone saw him in a prison stage production (I’m thinking something like the one shown in the recent Caesar Must Die) and wanted him to play a role in his last film – the Mafia film Gommora – but wasn’t allowed to cast him. Somehow, he was allowed to cast him this time around (although, apparently after filming stopped, he had to go back to jail, where he still has 8 years remaining on his prison sentence). Whether Arena can play any other role when his jail time is up remains to be seen – but he’s just about perfect in Reality. Perhaps have spent two decades behind bars helped him to play Luciano, who is wide eyed and amazed at the world of fame all around him (which may seem even stranger to someone, who in jail, wouldn’t have seen the slow change first hand as the rest of us had). Perhaps, Arena is just a brilliant actor. But whatever the case, his Luciano makes a great Rupert Pupkin.
Garrone’s storytelling remains slightly messy – this was one of the strengths of Gommora, which was unwieldy in its scope as it jumped from one scene to next with amazing speed. But this film remains focused on Luciano, and as a result, the more sudden shifts in tone, the addition of several subplots that are then abandoned, are more of a problem this time around (I am not sure what precisely Garrone is saying about religion in this film for example – but he obviously had something in mind). And yet, when the film focuses Luciano, and his slow descent into madness, it is top notch. Garrone may be saying something about Italian culture in Reality – but really, it’s themes are universal.