Back in 2008, Matteo Garrone blew both Cannes jury and critics away with crime drama Gomorrah, earning the Grand Prix for his trouble. Fast-forward to 2012 and the Italian filmmaker repeated the feat with follow-up feature Reality, which is at last getting a UK release.
But does this dissection of reality TV justify its glittering festival pedigree?
Whoa, hang on. Reality TV?
Oh yeah, I remember now: what ugly people did for attention before the invention of Facebook.
Rewind about a decade or so and, depending on who you asked, reality TV was tabloid catnip, fodder for a million-and-one dinner party debates, a cheap shortcut to easy ratings, and/or the greatest threat to western intellectual existence since Attila the Hun. But whether you liked it, loved it, loathed it, or had it quietly on in the background whilst knitting a new sweater, it was practically a legal obligation to have some kind of opinion about it.
Back in the here and now, however, and reality telly has rather relinquished its power to incite great passions, either for or against. The format’s become as tediously over-familiar as the waking need for a piss – meaning that the decision of director Matteo Garrone to make it an integral component of his latest movie feels about as timely as a rerun of that Jimmy Saville tribute special.
The central figure in Reality is Luciano (played by Aniello Arena), a Neapolitan fishmonger whose puckishly charming personality and penchant for fancy dress-enabled pranks mean that his wife, kids and comic troupe of a wider family are always telling him he should be on TV.
And so, as fate would have it, having recently performed just such a prank in the presence of Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), an erstwhile winner of the one reality show to rule them all, Big Brother, Luciano is finally presented with a route to fulfilling that prophecy when he himself is given a shot at auditioning for BB.
Convinced he has blitzed the housemate selection process, Luciano duly closes up his business and waits for the call which will turn him into a TV star and transform his financial fortunes… and he waits… and he waits… and he waits… all the while his obsession with fame growing more and more choking, thus driving a wedge between him and shrill spouse Maria (Loredana Simioli).
It’s a semi-comic stew of a scenario which grows increasingly hard-to-swallow over the course of its run-time, becoming as implausible as a Barry Manilow facelift.
Whether it’s Luciano lurking behind a nightclub air vent in order to surprise Enzo, or doling out furniture to tramps in a deeply convoluted bid to impress the Big Brother bigwigs, the character’s behaviour is so extreme that the broader satire is de-fanged. The film becomes not so much the story of how far a man will degrade himself for fame as it is the story of how far THIS man will.
The narrative flights of fantasy do seem deliberate to an extent, with Garrone (who in addition to directing, also co-wrote the script and serves as his own camera operator) making an obvious attempt to frame Luciano’s misadventures as some kind of contemporary fairy tale.
But aside from the beautiful diaphanous score from Alexandre Desplat, seemingly lifted straight from some magical Disney extravaganza, the efforts in this regard feel mostly like a wafer-thin excuse for the improbabilities of the story.
Which is not to say Reality is a complete load of badger’s knackers: the observational-style shooting is both immersive and impressive, while the depiction of the Naples working class scraping a living (by means both legitimate and not) undeniably harkens back to the grand ol’ Italian tradition of neorealism.
And if Garrone sometimes stutters in his efforts to locate the truth in his material then no blame at all can be affixed to his leading man, Arena, who is convincing and charismatic in equally healthy measure in what is a fairly astonishing cinematic debut.
Astonishing, not just for the quality of his performance but also because the 44-year-old is serving a life-without-parole sentence for his part in an early ‘90s triple-homicide carried out by the Camorra (the Naples crime syndicate documented in Gomorrah). Having discovered a passion and talent for acting as part of a prison theatre company, Arena was only able to participate in Reality thanks to being allowed out on day release to shoot his scenes.
Reality is released in the UK on 22 March