The dreamer/fishmonger is Luciano (Aniello Arena), and it’s his kids who push him to try for a “provino,” a screen test, to be on the “Grande Fratello” show. Arena delivers a committed performance from his character’s first appearance at that wedding trying to entertain the guests in drag and a purple fright wig. A compulsive showoff, he’s not funny, but he gets the reluctant attention of Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former Big Brother contestant who’s essentially a talentless non-entity but arrives and leaves the wedding in a helicopter, like a celebrity. If Enzo can do it, why can’t Luciano?
Garrone knows how to take a theme and run with it, hard, and by now he’s learned a lot about using locations and non-actors skillfully. He gets an intense, borderline pathetic performance from Arena, and his opening Felliniesque swoop in and closing Felliniescque swoop out, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s restrained but sweeping music, show he’s still got a toe-hold on cinematic world class status. This is a study of broken dreams and worn-out ideas, quintessential Italian concerns. Reality is an expression of Italian cinematic tradition — but a tradition in a debased, simplified form, in the grips of a mind-numbing Berlusconi style TV takeover. How did this country whose cultural history is arguably the world’s richest, become so deeply wedded to trash?
The movie has neat visual touches. Luciano and his family live in a big ruined palazzo with many other families in Naples. It seems like a squat. For some reason their apartment appears spacious, bright, filled with nice things. One reason is that Luciano and his fishmonger partner Michele (played by Neapolitan comic Nando Paone) run a “robot” scam with old ladies, which I cannot explain to you, but which nets them extra cash. The funky, warm ruined grandeur of Luciano’s Naples housing contrasts with the fake, coldly modern “Casa” of the Grande Fratello set — spied on all the time by cameras. Why would Luciano want to trade the humanity of his Portici neighborhood and jolly family for a gabble of sleazy swingers — but then, why wouldn’t he, if he has no sense?
Once Luciano has had what seemed a very successful tryout for the show at Cinecittà in Rome, he begins to worry that he, in his own world, is being watched. A mean gesture toward a homeless person whom he drives away from his fish stand fills him afterward with terror and guilt. Was this a test? Luciano begins giving away his possessions in order to make a good impression, convinced all the freeloaders in the neighborhood are spies from the show. And this paranoia is what strangely morphs into something like religious fervor. His growing insanity alienates him from his long-suffering wife Maria (Loredana Simioli).
There’s a strong sense of local culture and neighborhood support in Reality — in contrast to the false bonds among the pseudo-glamorous contestants on the Grande Fratello show. Luciano sells fish in a little market square where everybody knows each other. He’s especially encouraged by the young cafe bartender, played by the excellent Ciro Petrone, one of the pair of teenage would-be gangsters in Gomorrah. But this encouragement backfires when Luciano’s reality show obsession makes him lose his grip on everyday reality. It seems only religion, and a church program to help the poor his former partner draws him into, can save Luciano — the old religion, not the new one of fame and money and the airwaves. Only Luciano leaps from a saint’s day celebration deeper into his fantasy. As Luciano sneaks onto the Grande Fratello set, he slips completely into madness, and Garrone achieves a genuinely creepy, yet compared to his early work, very mainstream moment.
DIRECTOR: MATTEO GARRONE
WRITERS: MATTEO GARRONE, MASSIMO GAUDIOSO, UGO CHITI, MAURIZIO BARUCCI
STARS: ANIELLO ARENA, LOREDANA SIMEOLI, NANDO PAONE, RAFFAELE FERRANTE, GIUSEPPINA CERVIZZI, CIRO PETRONE
RUNNING TIME: 116MIN
COUNTRY: ITALY, FRANCE