Reality is a hefty word to title a film with, until you stick ‘TV’ after it. This film does ask questions about what is real, but the title also refers to that genre of television programme that has very little to do with reality but somehow gets big viewing figures. Like ‘real’ reality it takes a while to get going.
Director Matteo Garrone‘s previous film, Gomorrah, used five intersecting stories to examine the impact of the mafia in Naples – known as the Camorra – on a cross section of society. Rather than a gritty portrait of the violent lives of gangsters, Reality looks at the glossy world of reality TV. The implication is that both organised crime and reality TV have spread their tentacles throughout modern life in Italy and ruin all they touch.
While Gomorrah was an adaptation of a best selling non-fictional book, Reality took its inspiration from the experience of Garrone’s brother-in-law. The hero of the film is Luciano, a gregarious Neopolitan fish monger who makes a little extra cash running small scams with his brother and wife. His tight-knit family are poor, but happy, especially when he dresses in drag to entertain them all.
The warm heart and big bosom of this community at first appears enough to satisfy Luciano. But when his family suggest that he audition to appear on Big Brother – aka Grande Fratello – the possibility of a lucky break becomes an all encompassing obsession. This first part of the film, where Luciano’s personality and milieu are established, is perhaps the most challenging. Not only did it move a little slowly, but I was sometimes left wondering what the events had to do with the story.
After roughly 40 minutes, Reality seemed to have found its feet and it turns into a gently surreal, yet emotionally engaging film. Gradually, Luciano’s conviction that getting on Grande Fratello will lift him out of poverty and obscurity begins to take on the hue of mental illness.
Unexpected and slightly surreal imagery occurs from the earliest part of the film – Luciano’s scam is based around re-selling cookers that look like small robots – but the strangeness increases once he starts to lose his mind. He becomes convinced that the Grande Fratello auditions team have sent people down to Naples to test him, which transforms everyone he meets into potential saviours.
The changes in Luciano’s personality become almost religious in its fervour. Like St Francis (at least the version in Zefirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon) he starts to give away his worldly possessions. Despite Garrone insisting when we talked to him that his film is not moralistic, the way it presents celebrity culture as filling the gap left by religion makes it easy to see Reality as a satire.
At the heart of the film is Luciano, an extroverted wheeler-dealer who somehow ends up lost in an interior hall of mirrors. If the first part of the film is slightly too slow, it does at least allow us to get to know this very human character and to feel for him later. This is due to an excellent performance by Aniello Arena, a former Camorra hitman now serving time for a triple gangland hit.
It’s difficult to know whether to quote a philosopher, a sociologist or even PM Dawn when discussing Reality. Possibly it’s the early 90s pop rap group we should turn to, after all they expressed some sort of a profound philosophy with the line, “reality used to be a friend of mine.” A feeling anyone can relate to after a night watching I’m A Celebrity. This film poignantly illustrates the dark side of all this nonsense.
Reality is out on DVD on Monday 23rd July.
See the trailer here: