Matteo Garrone set the world of the middle-of-the-road “arthouse”-multiplex crossover alight in 2008 with Gomorrah, a multi-faceted examination of organised crime in modern-day Italy. With Reality, Garrone turns his attention to the cult of celebrity, which, over a decade on from the launch of reality television and the vapid nature of the famous-for-no-reason seems like an odd, almost cliched direction for a filmmaker of Garrone’s stock to focus upon. One can only presume that in Italy Endemol’s Big Brother remains the cultural phenomenon that it once was in the UK, prior to the days of it being relegated to a tabloid television channel.
Reality opens with an ambitious tracking shot, the tone riffing on and channeling the conventions of the fairytale. And indeed, the opening locale of a wedding couldn’t be more apt an occasion with which to draw such comparisons, especially when the films protagonist, Luciano (Aniello Arena) does a skit as the archetypical “ugly sister” and the group of people around Luciano all live together in a house that wouldn’t look out of place in a tale of the Brothers Grimm. And yet, as the sprawling nature of the opening subsides the focus shifts from Brothers Grimm to Big Brother, for Luciano has aspirations to feature on the show.
A great humour runs through the picture, off-setting the pretty dark subject matter that Garrone is playing with. Our protagonist is essentailly having a breakdown, and loses everything in aid of his dreams, and yet the emotional beats are broken up by genuine incidents of slapstick. As he gives away his worldly possessions one can’t help but find lightness in the reactions of those around him, not least those benefiting from his misguided kindness, while a shake-down of an OAP in the sanctity of a house of God is one of the most awkward and frolicsome sequences of the season.
The film’s drawing of allusion between the church and reality television is a little heavy-handed at times, not least in the manner in which the two combine to grant our protagonist his ultimate wish, yet the platform serves as an interesting examination of life in contemporary Italy. A land affected, thanks to the financial recession, it’s arguable that Reality is just as great an analysis of Garrone’s homeland as Gamorrah, with both films sharing a wild and uneven path of exploration, to middling effects.
As a post-script, and in keeping with the spirit of the film itself, of celebrity and obsession with a stranger’s life, Reality features the most curious second life off-screen. Aniello Arena is currently serving a jail sentence for his role in a triple homicide. Arena is said to have worked as a hit-man in the years preceding his life as an actor. It certainly adds a remarkable spin to a relatively average picture.