Reality (2012), the new film from Palme d’Or-winning director Matteo Garrone, starts with the most flagrant unreality. Taking his cue from Fellini, Garrone and cinematographer Marco Onorato establish the irony of the title with an opening shot that descends from the heavens, as a golden coach drawn by plumed white horses through the suburbs arrives at an opulent, grotesque wedding ceremony. In one fell swoop, everything is set in place: our multiple interpretations of reality, the destructive role the façade of outward presentation plays in modern life, and the parallels between religious faith and celebrity status.
Attending the ceremony is Luciano (Aniello Arena), a garrulous Neapolitan fishmonger and part-time scam artist whose sees an adumbration of what his future could hold when former Big Brother contestant Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante) gets choppered in and treated like a god. When Luciano’s daughter informs him that the Big Brother producers are staging auditions in a local mall, he submits to an interview with the support of his wife (Loredana Simioli). His enthusiasm secures him a place in the next round, and not needing any more encouragement than that, Luciano becomes fixated on the idea that he is under Orwellian surveillance 24 hours a day.
As Luciano, Arena (currently serving a life long prison sentence for a Mafia-related murder) exhibits a brash exuberance that makes his eventual breakdown into a delusional state entirely plausible. He begins to believe that the only way he will be selected is to become a Christ-like figure – giving away all of his family possessions to the poor – a metaphor for Berlusconi-era Italy in which the old traditions of Catholicism are inextricably linked to the new obsession with consumer culture. The final shot of Reality implies a celestial ascension, that Luciano has finally stepped onto sacred ground, and draws comparison to the last moments of 1951’s Miracle in Milan – another satirical, magical-realist Italian comedy – where the heroes fly away on broomsticks, around the cathedral, possibly to heaven.
Reality is a modern day religious parable about the perils of faith: in a mass mediated entertainment environment, faith is only one step away from obsession. Although Garrone has been accused of confronting a subject that now appears less potent and immediate, and with nothing more to add beyond Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), his latest film explores the pratfalls of celebrity with the unashamed extravagance and reckless abandon of reality TV and its many characters.