The Taviani brothers explored a Shakespeare production performed by a group of prison inmates earlier in the year with Caesar Must Die (2012). Matteo Garrone, who arrived on the international scene to great acclaim with hard-hitting Mafioso drama Gomorrah (2008), has now gone one step further. Out on DVD this week is Reality (2012), a film for which he enlisted the incarcerated Aniello Arena; who attended the shoot whilst on day release from his life sentence. Bringing an unmistakable sense of wonderment to proceedings, he proves an irresistible protagonist in Garrone’s biting satire of cultural degeneration.
The Roman director may have returned to the familiar streets of Naples for his latest piece, but it adopts a markedly different tone to that of its predecessor. Exploring the pervasive modern preoccupation with celebrity, the film delves into the somewhat queasy world of a man desperate to appear on reality television. Luciano (Arena) is a fishmonger in an unassuming Neapolitan piazza. He makes a crooked living on the side, and is a dab hand at providing gaudy entertainment to family and friends on special occasions. Despite rocking up to a garish wedding in drag, he is eclipsed by the arrival of Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante) a previous contestant on TV’s Grande Fratello (aka Endemol’s once popular Big Brother).
It’s difficult to understand Enzo’s appeal – a cloying English catchphrase (“Never Give Up!”) only exacerbates his lack of charisma. However, when the opportunity arises to audition for the show’s next run, Luciano’s family spur him on; when he is asked to return for a second round, things go to his head and real life begins to lose meaning. Crucially, Garrone never permits the audience to witness their protagonist’s tryout so how close he is to being selected remains an unknown. The more consumed Luciano becomes with his desire to be on the show – and the instantaneous stardom it would bestow – the more absurd his actions become. Overlaying this aspiration for fame onto a Catholic protagonist sees him transplant actual faith with his vacuous compulsion.
Before long, he is convinced that the show runners are omnipotently keeping tabs on him (via neighbours, passers-by, crickets) and he must improve his behaviour in preparation for their judgement. Allowing his camera to loosely roam about his cast and setting as he sees fit, Garrone creates an almost giddy sense of involvement in the ever increasing madness of Luciano’s obsession. Pointing a finger at the facile nature of trash TV may not be ground-breaking, but Reality goes about it all with more than enough panache right through to its ambiguously disconcerting ending.