While there remain strong differences in the world, a common theme in these economically challenging times is the dream of simple people who, stuck in their difficult circumstances, dream of a way out. And yet, if you have no discernible talents to sing, dance, write, cure cancer or some other feat, the only way through the golden arches is to be…….yourself, in other words a person who becomes famous by not contributing anything or doing very much other than being their authentic selves. This is the mantra for those who long to be on reality television, an alchemy that turns nobodies into somebodies almost instantaneously. This same phenomenon is playing out on television screens in North America, Asia and Europe, or wherever reality television has taken hold…which is darned near everywhere on the planet.
So, a film that looks at this strange turn of events is certainly of the moment, and that is what the many attributes ascribed to REALITY, the latest film from Italian director Matteo Garrone, whose 2008 film GOMORRAH, about the continued influence of the Mafia in Italian political and social life, was a major international arthouse hit. In REALITY, which won the Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Film Festival and will come to U.S. screens later this year via Oscilloscope Laboratories, we follow the tragi-comic story of Luciano (non-professional actor Aniello Arena), a Neapolitan fishmonger with aspirations to find his fortune on the Italian version of BIG BROTHER. The film charts his personal aspirations, the pressure from his family, the successful transition to reality star by former housemate Enzo and his subsequent delusional breakdown. Intoxicated with the desire for a false and fleeting fame, Luciano quickly turns from charming family man to an obsessive, paranoid reclusive, convinced that the casting team of the reality show are testing him for selection long after the show has started.
Thanks to Garrone’s script and direction, and a very good performance from newcomer Aniello Arena (an apparent real life felon who is serving a life sentence for murder and was allowed to make the film during the day, provided he return to his cel each night), Luciano’s transformation is completely compelling, and it is both tragic and very funny to watch him take the bait. In a style that is reminiscent of the visual flourishes of Federico Fellini, his cloudy thinking and obvious envy are highlighted in richly visual scenes which have his former housemate Enzo universally adored and apparently rich and famous. In reality (a term used very sparingly), Enzo’s fame has in fact reduced him to making personal appearances at weddings and trussed up in a harness to fly through the air of a nightclub. We are gently persuaded to question why fame has come to that, and laugh at the perversity of those, like Luciano, who see it as in any way worthy of aspiration. The film also offers a critical commentary on the way Luciano is forced to simulate his own reality in order to qualify as good enough for Reality TV. That he never realizes the irony of that fact is one of the film’s most enduring satirical touches.