Matteo Garrone’s 2008 Grand Jury Prize winner Gomorrah was a huge success both internationally and in its native Italy, where its director has since become something of a national hero – albeit one who remains under permanent police guard. For his follow-up, Reality (2012), Garrone has bravely eschewed material aping his blood-drenched crime drama. Yet at the same time, the story is lifted from a similar milieu of marginalised Neapolitan lives, explored with sympathy and humour.
Aniello Arena (in his feature debut) plays Luciano, a Neapolitan fishmonger whose illegal scams help to bolster the family income. A happy-go-lucky guy who we first see dressing up in drag to amuse family members at a wedding, his life is turned upside down when he applies for TV’s Big Brother (Grande Fratello as it is known in Italy) and is invited to Rome for an audition. Utterly convinced that he is going to enter the show, Luciano becomes obsessed with the possibility that the TV execs are checking up on him and starts behaving in an increasingly unhinged manner.
Luciano’s large extended family try everything to bring him back to his senses but he seems to be obsessed, convinced that sooner or later the phone call will come that will make him rich and famous. His long-suffering wife Maria (Loredana Simioli) is at the end of her tether and the rest of the family – who seem to all live one-on-top-of-the-other in a little courtyard – almost serve as a Greek chorus as they offer conflicting advice, sympathy and admonitions.
A synopsis like this does little justice to the sheer scope and scale of Garrone’s Reality. His very first shot is a sweeping panorama of 18th century Naples, with the role of fantasy and the contingent status of reality are immediately introduced. Garrone subtly implies that reality television has become, in Silvio Berlusconi’s wake, a substitute for the Church’s power and a vital tool for promoting a secular Heaven on Earth: entering the BB House with the nubile, the young and the soon to be rich. There are moments here of broad comedy – Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former winner who Luciano pleads for assistance, is hilarious – but Garrone’s film is ill-described as a comedy. Rather, it is a biting portrait of the toxic effects of an aspirational culture which pretends to be open when it is in fact barred and gated.
Although we can now look to Garrone as an established voice in contemporary Italian cinema, Reality is also firmly-rooted in the traditions of great Italian film. There are Fellini-esque touches of surrealism, but also nods to the neo-realist directors. The character of Luciano echoes similar roles in two classic efforts: the father (Lamberto Maggiarani) from The Bicycle Thieves (1948) and partly Anna Magnani from Bellissima (1951). Perhaps it is the latter film which Reality most resembles thematically, but Garrone has also made a truly wonderful film entirely of his own.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May, 2012. For more of our Cannes 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.