Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Chiti, Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, and Massimo Gaudioso (screenplay,
based on a story by Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso), Matteo Garrone
(director) Reality / 2012
of the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Festival--Matteo Garrone’s first film
since the dark, Neapolitan Mafia-centered Gomorrah--Reality, although satiric in intent,
is perhaps even a darker film, philosophically speaking, than his 2008 work.
Cinema, by its very nature, has no choice
but to question, at some level, the nature of reality, since even what the
audience is watching a kind of delusion; from the interplay of light
and dark to the film sets (no matter how realistically presented) to the
actors’ performances, film is a purposeful delusion, which the audience—in a
kind of suspension of belief—temporarily accepts—even if the film plays itself
out in terms of exaggeration and fantasy, such as the works of someone like
Federico Fellini, whose style, at times, Garrone’s new film embraces.
But Garrone has not only recognized that
inherent issue in filmmaking, but embraced it as his title and subject.
Although most critics to date have noted that the subject of Garrone’s film is
“reality” television films, most specifically the popular—particularly in Italy—Grande Fratello (Big Brother) series,
few have commented that throughout the whole of Garrone’s film, the larger focus is on concerns of what is or is not “real.”
The film begins, after a grand Fellini-like
swing of the camera across the Neapolitan landscape, with a fairy-tale like
wedding, played out in a kind of televised fantasy-land, to which the wedding
couple are brought in a ridiculously anachronistic carriage decked out with 17th
century-like Austrian rider and horses as if it dropped from the sky from a
kitschily topped wedding cake. Inside the gates, the wedding hall and spacious
grounds are filled with a Disney-like maze of reflecting pools, concrete bridges,
and greenswards that imitate a worker’s vision of paradise. Indeed, the family
and guests of the bridge and groom are Neapolitan workers, all outrageously
dressed and most of them grossly overweight, including the immediately family
of the thinner Luciano (Aniello Arena) and Maria (Loredana Simioli), whose
chubby children, father, mother, aunts, and brother obviously love to eat. A
group portrait presents a surreal vision of this brightly colored world that
might be at home in later works by Fellini.
Into these mad festivities flies,
literally, Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), an almost deified figure for having been a
recent performer on Grande Fratello. As
the wedding participants applaud and attempt simply to touch their television
hero, Luciano, whom we soon discover is very much at the center of family fun,
dresses in drag, suddenly appearing in the midst of Enzo’s act as his former
girlfriend. Although, he takes the intrusion with some grace, Enzo is clearly
not amused by Luciano’s comic act—neither are most of Luciano’s family, who have
seen him play such roles numerous times—and is even more irritated when, as he
is about to leave, Luciano again accosts him, demanding to take a picture with his young
The party over, we now might suppose we
can catch a glimpse of the celebrants “real” life, but that world--a large,
decaying stone apartment building which looks more like a series of urban caves than a city structure--is just as
dramatically absurd, as Luciano carries his crippled father up the stairs
piggyback, the mother, aunts, and brother heaving their bodies, in constant
complaint, up the stairs behind. This family, obviously, live in a
world as exaggerated as a mix between the US reality shows, Here Comes Honey Boo and Jersey
The next morning we at least see a
glimpse of what we might describe as verisimiltude, watching Luciano at work as a
fishmonger in the nearby square. But even that glimmer of normality
is quickly dashed as his wife shows up at another local apartment building to
collect all the Robots (a ridiculous Italian kitchen-aid—which evidently
dices, slices, stirs, blends, and even kneads bread—which has been delivered to
them by contract, and which for a few Euros Maria and Luciano buy up, selling
them for greater sums to underworld figures. Exactly how the scam works is
never made clear, but apparently Maria also works for the Robot company. The
refusal of one elderly woman to give up her new utensil sends Luciano and his
friend Michele (Nando Paone) to a church service and finally into the home of
the recalcitrant receiver, where they discover the now filthy machine in use.
Later, at a local shopping mall, Maria
and her roly-poly offspring encounter a large try-out session for Grande Fratello, and immediately call
their beloved Luciano, urging him to join them. Because of the Robot incident, he
arrives late, but still wheedles a try out, which further leads to a finalist stint
in Rome. At first, Luciano seems
disinterested in the whole affair, simply stating his daughter insisted that he
give it a chance. But after the Rome interview, where he reveals he has “really
opened up,” telling them things he’d never even told his father, he begins to
long for the chance to “make it”; certainly, as we easily perceive, he is a
more interesting figure than Enzo. Indeed, within a short period, Luciano
convinces himself he will be chosen
for the show, and the local community, delighted by the possibility of one of
their own becoming famous, encourages him.
His own extended family is at first
supportive, but gradually break into camps, some egging him on, others
doubting the wisdom of going off for several weeks to leave his wife, children,
and job behind. Soon, however, Luciano is bitten with what is later described
as “Big Brother” fever, and proposes to sell his fish shop, using the money to
improve their house and support them in his absence, which he becomes
increasingly certain will soon be announced.
Simultaneously, Garrone’s film moves into
new dimensions as, little by little, Luciano becomes convinced that the Rome
studio has sent out secret emissaries to check up on him. First, a beautiful
woman from Rome and her friend visit his fish shop, questioning him about
various differences between his fish stand and those in the capitol city, such
as leaving clams to soak in water. Charmed by them and a little suspicious,
Luciano, gives them a substantial discount.
When he later chases away an beggar, he
grows suspicious when he sees the poor man speaking with a besuited gentleman
around the corner. Has his niggardly behavior hurt his chances for appearing on
the show? Before long, Luciano is uncovering spies almost everywhere he goes.
As he and Maria attempt to collect a new Robot, Luciano observes a suspicious
man watching them, and suspends his acts, giving away the Robot instead of
When he reecounters the beggar, he
treats him to a drink, pizza and pastries. As the Big Brother series begins its
new season—with two new members to be announced a week later—Luciano goes even
further to prove his good intentions and reveal his worth. With Maria out of
the house, he begins to give away their furniture and even their clothing to
the poor. Maria, having already turned against her husband’s aspirations, is
furious and leaves him.
For all that, we realize, for the first time in his life, Luciano has
changed his previously selfish and criminal ways. Having sold his fish stand,
given away much of his household, and abandoned his petty thievery, hasn’t he
become a new and better man? Which is the “real” Luciano? Which Luciano might
we prefer as a "hero"—the desire after all of all the “Big Brother” wannabes?
Mightn’t his delusions be preferable to his previous values?
Before long, however, Luciano, alone in
the room with his television running, begins even to suspect a cricket on the
wall as a spy from the television show. Deep now in madness, he no longer has
any sense of what might be described as “reality.” Even after he has clearly
been eliminated from the competition, he is convinced that the contestants are
imitating his routines, how he moves and dances.
Visiting Luciano’s family, Maria is convinced
to return to him, if only to help rouse him out of his growing insanity. Michele,
represented throughout as a truly religious man, tries to involve Luciano in
church work, ecouraging him to serve the poor by working on the Church’s food
line. Together they even plan a pilgrimage to the Vatican.
As Garrone takes us into St. Peter’s
Square with the two men among a crowd of thousands, we almost wonder whether
“reality” might not be found within the religion in which the culture is so
immersed—that is, until suddenly Luciano disappears.
We witness him, once more, at the Cinecittà Studios, at the
very spot where Fellini once filmed. The major set of that studio is now the
large Grande Fratello compound into
which Luciano has miraculously made his way. Opening a brightly red colored
door, Luciano enters the magical world he has so longed to be part of, at
first, like the audience of the show, watching the participants’ banal
actions—half-naked sybaritic acts mechanically and almost desperately performed—through a glass wall. At moments it
almost appears that they are imitating Luciano’s clumsy attempts throughout his
life to entertain his family and friends. Suddenly, through an open space,
Luciano enters into the “real” space of this “reality” show, sliding unseen
along the walls, at first giggling with boyish joy and wonderment and then
laughing aloud as he seats himself upon a neon-lit chaise-lounge, the camera
moving up and off—the title finally appearing at the film’s end.
We have no way of knowing whether Luciano
has finally come to see the absurdity of this totally manufactured reality or
whether he is simply pleased to have found himself within it, having completely
crossed the line between sanity and madness and entered into a new "reality."
Perhaps, Garrone is telling us, there is
no way, in our totally artificed world, to determine the difference. Truth is
only a matter of perspective. Just before the film was about to begin at the
AFI Festival in Hollywood where I saw this feature, the film’s introducer
explained that the work’s major actor, Aniello Arena, had been temporarily
released from prison, where he is serving a term for murder, to perform in
Garrone’s movie each day before returning prison at nights. The AFI could not
get permission, however, for another release for his appearance at this
Is Luciano, in real life, accordingly, an
actor or a criminal? Maybe his being one he is necessarily the other. Truth, as
Oscar Wilde would have argued, has little meaning for art.