CANNES – Matteo Garrone made an international splash with his film “Gomorrah” in 2008, an unblinking look at the modern Mafia in Italy, and deservedly so. The film had a remarkable sense of time and place, and there was an unvarnished honesty to it that stripped away decades of cinema’s romanticism of organized crime. This morning, his new film “Reality” made its debut, and it is a wildly different type of film, a biting social satire about the modern age and its media-driven obsession with fame. It is a Job story, at times quite funny, at other times painful, but always shot with a precise, masterful eye, and impeccably performed by the entire ensemble.
“Big Brother” is a global phenomenon at this point, and it seems based on the reading I’ve done that it is bigger in several countries than it is in the US. Domestically, it’s a solid ratings performer, but in some places, it seems like it is a pop culture juggernaut. In “Reality,” Garrone looks at the pervasive influence of the show and the way it drives one poor bastard in particular completely mad, and the way the film is structured, it makes its points clearly and with a brute force wit. It helps that Aniello Arena, who stars as Luciano, has a great movie face and a lovely soulful quality that shines through even in the film’s strangest or darkest moments. Garrone makes this an experiential movie, almost all of it absorbed from Luciano’s perspective, and he is a captivating lead.
One of the things that is most interesting about the film is the way Garrone uses fiction to get closer to his character than reality TV ever could, and I think it’s one of the key points of the film. If someone had tried to make a reality show about the Mafia, for example, there’s no way the end result would have been more “real” than “Gomorrah” was, and there is something important in that. Fiction, for all of its invention and contrivance at times, can get us closer to someone than reality television ever can. The introduction of cameras into reality automatically changes someone’s behavior, while a great filmmaker and a great cast can erase that artifice and, in an ideal situation, get to something completely true, something that resonates because we recognize ourselves in it.
The opening shot of the film, underlined by a shimmering, playful score by Alexandre Desplat, is a technical marvel, a long helicopter shot over Naples that eventually finds a horse-drawn carriage filled with what appear to be Disney storybook characters moving along a modern road. We get closer and closer to them until the moment they arrive at what we realize is a wedding venue where there are several different wedding parties celebrating simultaneously in what feels like a Fellini dream. Marco Onorato’s camerawork in the film is constantly inventive and absorbing, floating through this world. Eventually, we find Luciano upstairs, getting ready to perform for his relatives. He’s that eccentric uncle who always does big voices and broad characters, entertaining his family. They always tell him that he should be on television, that he’s hilarious, that he is as good as anyone famous, and in that first moment, it seems like Luciano doesn’t really believe that.
After all, he’s too focused on making a life for his family to worry about chasing fame. He runs a fish market, but he also runs small scams on the side, little hustles designed to make extra money. He has three kids and a wife, and it takes a constant output of energy just to stay afloat. There’s a special celebrity guest at the wedding, a guy named Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), who became famous as a “Big Brother” contestant, and he moves from wedding to wedding, giving the same toast at each, allowing his celebrity to bless the day for each of the couples, and Luciano can’t help but note how everyone responds.
It’s not long after that his family is at the mall and realizes they are holding “Big Brother” auditions. His kids are determined that their dad would be a great contestant, and so they get their mother Maria (Loredana Simioli) to call him and get him down to the mall. He’s almost too late, but he manages to talk the producers into letting him interview just so the kids are happy. When he gets a callback to come to Cinecitta Studios in Rome for a second audition, Luciano suddenly starts to believe that he might have a shot at actually appearing on the show, and especially because his audition runs a full hour. By the time he gets back to his house in Naples, he’s fully convinced that he is going to be picked, and he begins to plan his future as a rich and famous TV star.
That hubris is an issue, though, and what unfolds over the rest of the film is a sharp and savage look at what happens when we chase something as unreal and elusive as “fame.” It’s not like Luciano has an actual product he’s trying to create or an artistic statement he wants to make. For him, the goal is nothing less than celebrity, and he is convinced after a time that it is owed to him, that he has a right to claim it. Garrone does a magnificent job of creating a community around Luciano, and everyone in the film feels natural, like these are normal, unexceptional people. The film itself plays with a slightly heightened sense of reality, so grounding the performances so completely is essential.
My only hesitation is that while I would compare this to Martin Scorsese’s “King Of Comedy,” it feels like it’s missing a final beat that would punctuate the story perfectly. Even so, there is a haunting quality to the wrap-up, and the dark laughs the film inspires got caught in my throat at times because of just how raw Arena is as Luciano. His palpable longing and his visible deflation will stick with me, as will Matteo’s sincere disdain for modern values. “Reality” continues my Cannes streak, and I have no doubt it will be embraced as another major statement from an artist worth our time and attention.