Film Review: Reality

Establishing himself as Italy&#8217;s leading <i>auteur</i>, Matteo Garrone follows up <i>Gomorrah</i>, his acclaimed crime saga, with a comic fable about an Everyman obsessing over his imminent celebrity on reality TV, even as he loses his grip on act

Luciano, a fishmonger with a makeshift stall in one of Naples’ ancient squares, is the neighborhood cut-up, the guy who dresses in drag as a party trick. At a wedding, decked out in blue wig and pink boa, he upstages the paid entertainment, Enzo, an adored cast member from the television show “Big Brother” (“Grande Fratello” in Italian). But while Enzo flies to and from his gigs by helicopter and is wildly applauded simply for showing up, Luciano must schlep home to his crowded apartment in the crumbling building where he lives with his extended family. When his children beg him to audition for the new season of “Big Brother” so he, too, can be fabulous like Enzo, Luciano, slowly but inexorably, is seduced by the notion of stardom.

Audiences who know Matteo Garrone only as the director of Gomorrah, the acclaimed 2008 drama about an Italian crime syndicate, may find themselves nonplussed by his latest film, Reality, a dark comedy satirizing our infatuation with instant fame and easy money. Where Gomorrah was violent and episodic, interweaving multiple storylines to create a tapestry of Neapolitan society, Reality is whimsical and allegorical, a fable about an ordinary man undone by his misguided sense of destiny. But those who know Garrone’s earlier work, The Embalmer and Primo Amore, will recognize that the filmmaker is extemporizing within his favorite genre, which might be labeled psychological horror or black humor, depending on one’s capacity for the capriciousness of the human condition.

Garrone, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes for both Gomorrah and Reality, has established himself as one of the most stylish and versatile directors in contemporary cinema, his work compared to Fellini and other Italian masters, although he cites Pirandello and Polanski as influences, for their explorations of our modern disease, the crisis of identity. This sounds tediously academic, but Garrone is anything but: His movies feature eccentrics and grotesques caught in extreme situations involving murder and mayhem. Reality, in this sense, is a departure, since the film’s tone and tenor, from the magical production design by Paolo Bonfini to the enchanting score by Alexandre Desplat, not to mention the beguiling performance by lead Aniello Arena, is that of a fairytale—a cruel one, perhaps, but then all fairytales are.

Arena, who plays Luciano, is himself an oddity, a charismatic actor who, offstage, is serving a life sentence for his involvement in a mob hit in 1991. Garonne had seen Arena perform with a prison company at a theatre festival in Tuscany and long wanted to cast him in a movie (his parole board nixed a role in Gomorrah). The director arranged his shooting schedule so Arena could film during the day while continuing to sleep behind bars at night.

Without doubt, Arena has palpable screen presence, heightened by the confluence of his circumstances in life and his role in Reality. “You see his delight in going to Cinecittà for the audition,” Garrone says of Arena in one of the movie’s key scenes, “and it’s a combination of emotions coming together in a real person and a fictional character.” So much of Reality depends on Arena’s gaze—his delusions of grandeur, his increasingly paranoid ponderings, his confused religious impulses, all caught in lingering close-ups—that it’s impossible to imagine that Garrone could have made the movie without him.

Hoping to ingratiate himself to the producers of “Big Brother,” Luciano sells his fish stall to devote himself to charity and good works, a plot device that, typical of Garrone and his writing partner, Massimo Gaudioso, perfectly meshes narrative with theme: Fishers of men must beware entanglement in the net of their own desires. Garrone is exploring weighty matters in Reality, questions of spirituality alternating with those pertaining to living a good life in the world, but the filmmakers (kudos also to cinematographer Marco Onorato and editor Marco Sponlentini) seem to be having so much fun, the movie never grows ponderous. A seeming superfluous subplot involving cooking robots, for example, unexpectedly leads us into deeper waters (to extend the piscine metaphor) without us realizing we are going under. Garrone has found a way to explore profound subjects by telling good yarns, which is a rare and wonderful talent.