Reality is the new film from Matteo Garrone, the Italian film director who is probably best known for Gomorrah, his film about the Neopolitan mafia known as the Camorra. While his earlier film ripped away the romantic illusions surrounding the mafia, this film takes a slightly surreal look at our current obsession with celebrity and reality TV. We spoke to the director over the phone.
Visceral and chilling in equal measure, Gomorrah was a huge success with critics and audiences. As well as doing very well at the box office, it has won a clutch of awards including the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008. Producing a follow-up after you’ve made a movie sensation is a daunting prospect, and this is especially acute when your first film is so hard hitting.
Garrone told The Guardian that he was being sent lots of large projects after Gomorrah, but found it difficult to find anything that was strong enough. Instead, he decided to start small and try to enjoy the process again. “It was a small story,” he clarifies, “but it then became bigger.” The initial idea behind Reality started close to home: “It was a true story that happened to the brother of my wife, so it was a story that I knew from inside. We thought we could develop the story into a dark comedy, a sort of modern fairy tale.”
Reality is funny, but also contains a fair dose of heart-wrenching pathos too. Garrone explains that combining humour and sorrow, realism and fantasy was hard work: “The film is like a dream and at the same time like a nightmare – this was very very difficult. Probably much more difficult than Gomorrah.”
There are some strikingly surreal moments in Reality. One example is when the hero, Luciano, visits a nightclub to catch a glimpse of his idol, the Big Brother star Enzo. There, clad in a sparkly gold suit, Enzo floats around the club suspended from a wire while the crowd dances ecstatic beneath him. Garrone calls the film a form of “magic realism” – although he says that Gomorrah was a sort of “black fairy tale” too.
While the UK version of Big Brother has been relegated to Channel 5, the Italian version has apparently remained a much bigger deal (according to Wikipedia at least). With Italy’s brand of slightly air-headed TV, I wonder if Reality is more relevant to Italy than other countries? “It is very important for me to say that Big Brother is not important, it is an artificial paradise,” he explains, “but it could be another programme.” It is undeniable that there is much more to reality TV than just Big Brother, but one can’t help thinking that Garrone has to handle Endemol’s precious intellectual property with care.
“It is a story about illusions, about dreams and illusions,” emphasises Garrone. He is also keen to remind us that Luciano is pushed by his family, friends and neighbours to enter Grande Fratello. What’s more, Luciano’s world is not so remote from the world we live in, “This is a society that is pushed to escape from everyday life, and this is the result of consumerism or capitalism. We all live in this society, we are all seduced by artificial paradises.”
The film’s hero, Luciano, is a very likeable character and this is key for Garrone. “The point was trying to be human with the characters and to understand Luciano, without being moralistic – it’s too easy to make a film about television.” Rather than satire, Garrone says he is trying to make a more philosophical point, “For Luciano, to get inside the television, to reach his goal, is to prove that he exists. So, it becomes a more existential problem.”
Luciano’s journey seems at points to become a religious quest, especially when he starts to give away the contents of the family home. This was one of the things that most attracted Garrone to the project, “I think it is very important and very modern… and also very human. He thinks by himself he is not good enough to pass the test, so he creates a new character. He is a sort of Pirandellan character.”
I wonder whether Italy’s lurid TV and religious devotion makes Reality more specific to the country, but Garrone disagrees. “I think it’s universal,” he clarifies. “The television has more power [in Italy] than in other countries, but more or less I think the phenomenon of desire for some new paradise or to escape from everyday life has connected society of today, to capitalism.”
This brings us to the Italian neorealists, those filmmakers who sprang up in the wake of the Second World War and whose techniques and subject matter reflected the gritty reality of people’s everyday lives after the war. Many critics have called attention to the influence of the movement on Garrone’s films, The Guardian going so far as to call Gomorrah “neo-neorealist”.
Garrone describes his film as “a journey around the contradictions of my country.” To do this properly, he feels the full breadth of society should be reflected in the film, including places that remind us of the past – such as Luciano’s home and the fish market where he works – which remind us of Italian neorealist movies too. While places like the mall make you think you already are in a reality show. Reiterating that this is not a moralistic film, but “simple and popular” he does acknowledge the influence of Fellini, Visconti’s Bellisima, and De Sica.
One of the highlights of Reality is Aniello Arena‘s Luciano, a character who is at once streetwise and naive, and who becomes hopelessly deluded but remains an innocent. Doubly remarkable because Arena has been serving time in prison since the early 1990s for a triple gangland killing.
Over the last few years prison theatre groups have sprung up in 110 Italian prisons. A production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a Rome prison was turned into a documentary, Caesar Must Die, that was almost entered into last year’s Oscars. But Garrone still struggled to get Arena released, as the judge didn’t want him to act in a movie. This is despite the fact that Arena has been the lead actor in a prison theatre company 14 or 15 years.
He points out there was a contradiction inherent in the judge’s decision: “We didn’t understand why he could play in theatre, and can’t play in film. It is very important for our institutions that they teach to prisoners work, and when he found acting he changed completely. Now he is an actor, not a prisoner. I know that the person who committed a crime twenty years ago is completely different from Aniello today.”
After the struggles of finding a project after Gomorrah, I wonder about the future. “I won’t say what my next movie will be, because I’m superstitious, but it will apparently be very different from Reality and Gomorrah, but will have something in common.”
Reality is out on DVD and Blu Ray on Monday 22 July, 2013.
Read our review of Reality here.