Reality, the new film from director Matteo Garrone, begins with a swooping crane shot which takes us straight into what appears to be a fairy tale setting. There’s a baroque castle, an ornate carriage drawn by white horses and even an Elfmanesque score (in fact by composer Alexandre Desplat who seems much in demand these days). On closer inspection however, this turns out to be a hotel facility rented out for incredibly kitsch ceremonies, and our main character Luciano is attending a family wedding.
But wedding over, it is as if the clock has struck midnight and the Godmother’s spells have suddenly worn off. The film moves from the outlandish decors and costumes, to the more subdued setting of a lower-middle class Neapolitan neighbourhood and the rather banal homes of Luciano and his family – this is his reality. And it is an extremely apt way to start a film which is both a kind of Cinderella story with a twist, and a social fable about appearances being misleading.
Luciano is a Neapolitan fishmonger and small-time scam artist with a larger-than-life personality. When auditions for Grande Fratello (Italy’s Big Brother) take place in a shopping centre, his wife and 3 kids encourage him to have a go. After being called up for another audition in Rome, and thanks to general enthusiasm from his entourage, he becomes convinced that his selection for the show’s final line-up is a foregone conclusion. From this conviction will grow an obsession within Luciano that will make him lose contact with the reality in front of him, and be lured by a superficial “reality”.
Garrone keeps us guessing as to whether or not Luciano’s dream will come true, but that doesn’t feel like the point of the film. There are obvious elements of satire but they are never heavy-going, and while the film has funny scenes, it is not really intended as a laugh-out loud comedy. It has bittersweet and touching moments but overall feels like a modernised version of the classic genre of “commedia all’italiana”, especially with its social themes and its wide range of colourful characters (who are deftly kept from descending into caricatures).
The film’s fluid camerawork and mise-en-scene also show Garrone’s skill as a director, and justify the Grand Prix award he won for this at Cannes 2012. Besides the impressive opening shot, there are many uninterrupted long takes where he elects to keep the camera moving rather than use editing. It all keeps the film flowing along until an ending that is both ambiguous and ambitious, and resonates with the theme invoked by the film’s title. We are left to wonder where Luciano’s obsession falls on the spectrum between fantasy and reality.
However the main reason why this film remains so eminently watchable is Aniello Arena, here in his film debut, as Luciano. In an incredible story (which recalls the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die), Arena is actually serving a life sentence in prison for a mafia-related murder committed in 1991. Through prison theatre workshops he trained as an actor (and no doubt changed as a person), and was accorded parole during the recording of the film. Good thing too because he is an absolute natural, instilled with charm and childlike candour. Reality is well worth a watch, even if for no other reason than to enjoy his performance.
Dir: Matteo Garrone