Reality, the latest from Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, could not be more different than previous film. 2008’s Gomorrah dealt with the cruel everyday world of Neapolitan crime– not the same thing as the mafia – and its muted color palette was instrumental in its depiction of a drab, violent world. Reality, on the other hand, is much more bright and lively. Parts of it are funny too, although I wouldn’t call it a comedy, exactly. Garrone’s subject is reality television, and while his message is somewhat familiar to American audiences, his control of character and camera more than compensates for his pat conclusion.
In a nod to Fellini, a camera swoops from the sky and eventually settles on a float from a wedding parade. Aside from the vulgarity of the display, the bridge and groom are incidental. What matters most is Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a star from Italy’s Big Brother, who makes a special appearance for the reception (he repeats his motto “Never give up” in English). Everyone loves Enzo, including Luciano (Aniello Arena), who is determined to get Enzo’s autograph for his daughter. Luciano is a big fish in a small pond – despite his lowly status as a fishmonger, he’s the star of his large extended family – so when his daughters discover Big Brother auditions in a shopping mall, they clamor for him to try out. He does it as a goof, but then the first callback happens, and Luciano veers into mania. He cannot stop obsessing about the show even as his friends and family beg him to stop.
Garrone is not content to tell a simple story about a man’s quixotic quest for fame. His film is bursting with life and colorful details. In the scene where Luciano first accosts Enzo, Luciano is in drag and pretends he’s his lover. No one, not even Luciano’s wife Maria (Loredana Simioli), thinks this especially strange. These families in Naples all have their quirks, and Garrone (correctly) never explains them. His camera work combines the immediate with the omnipotent. Whether from the sky or Luciano’s back, the shots are long without calling attention to their careful movement. The cinematography helps the richness of every scene: with warm yellows and appetizing reds, this is the Italy that Americans tourists dream of, except for the poverty. The juxtaposition between beauty and poverty is at its most poignant as it follows Luciano from his home. The dreary tenement shrouds its residents in darkness, and we think it’s a night scene until light bursts into the frame. It is plain to see why Luciano yearns for escape.
The depth of insanity, however, is not so plain. At first, he’s delusional in a typical way, humble-bragging his way through a rationalization after an audition. But then his self-aggrandizing gives way to intense paranoia. In a crucial scene, Luciano tells a passive-aggressive homeless man to fuck off, and immediately regrets it once he notices that anonymous men are watching carefully. Are they from the show or is it just a coincidence? Garrone makes the answer clear to everyone by Luciano, and the middle section veers into an unlikely religious allegory. Luciano’s friend believes in God, and tries to angle his new-found paranoia toward good. Of course it backfires: Luciano gives away more possessions than he should, and Maria does not know whether to lash out or worry. In this attention-grubbing world, naturally his idea of charity would be reckless. It’s to the credit of Garrone and Arena that they never stray from his Luciano’s descent. Each step towards oblivion is inexorable.
Unlike most foreign films, the title Reality is in English. It is crucial that there no need for a translation: the desire for America-level fame is everywhere, not just in Enzo’s pretentious American platitudes. Still, what is sneaky about Reality – and what makes it a good film – is how Luciano seizes upon “Never give up” and pushes the idea beyond Enzo’s intended inspirational limit. Even if he did get a spot on the show, it wouldn’t matter since his psychosis has him past the point basic humanity. The irony to this is how his family is more deserving of a reality show than the Big Brother cast, who are beautiful in the blandest way possible. Luciano does eventually find peace, but everyone except him realizes he’d be happier dancing in drag, daughter at his side.