“Never give up!” These words are repeatedly shouted by Enzo, a character who has fame and fortune as a former reality show star. It’s meant as advice to Luciano (Aniello Arena), a fishmonger who desperately wants to follow in Enzo’s footsteps and appear on Italy’s version of the reality television series, Big Brother. Doggedly, Luciano pursues his dream and as he seems to get closer to the possibility, he unravels. Poignant, potent, and heartfelt, Reality is an incisive character study that shines a light on how TV and the allure of money and fame can distort our perception of ourselves and those around us. Bolstered by an impassioned lead performance and peppered with a variety of intriguing Italian faces, it’s a film that’s at once very geographically specific and universal in its appeal and themes.
The film opens with a long helicopter shot of a gaudy wedding processional. It leads to a reception where local favorite, Luciano, is upstaged by the appearance of Enzo. Enzo’s adored and admired by all, including Luciano’s daughter, who begs her dad to get an autograph. When Big Brother holds a local audition in a mall, his family pushes him to try out and as he potentially gets closer to being on the show, his obsession grows. Time passes without word, but Luciano only sees the silence as a test by the show’s producers.
In many ways, Reality is eerily similar to Martin Scorses’sKing of Comedy. Both involve a delusional outsider who is obsessed with a TV icon and the allure of fame and fortune. Both involve outstanding performances and dark humor. The main characters differ in that Luciano has a family to support (and potentially lose) and that his obsession grows over time. Seeing the obsession evolve is a psychologically believable and engrossing process to behold, a testament to the performance by Aniello Arena, an actual prison inmate who was allowed out daily for filming. Arena exudes charisma, and his portrayal of desire is palpable. Like De Niro, he also seems to house an anger beneath the surface that provides a constant tension.
Largely through the lens of Arena’s performance, director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) presents a world in which TV is our new religion—or at least which, in the stars it generates, provides us new deities to worship. That may not be a new thesis but Garrone portrays it beautifully—from the first God-like view from a helicopter to the film’s denouement.
Director: Matteo Garrone
Writers: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso, Matteo Garrone
Starring: Aneillo Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone
Release Date: Mar. 15 (NY) / Mar. 22nd (LA)