Matteo Garrone does a 180 from his acclaimed crime film, Gomorrah, in this keenly observed cautionary tale about pop culture, moral scruples, and the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion. The title is ironic, yes — the film’s charismatic but hapless fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) spends his time coming unglued, losing his perspective as a working-class family man as he sacrifices his ordinary life in a misguided bid to become a reality-TV star.
The film opens with a god’s-eye view of Naples as Garrone’s camera descends slowly toward a horse-drawn carriage making its way, fairy-tale style, through modern streets. At ground level it finds a cheesy hotel hosting a wedding party where Luciano — in drag — is straining to keep the guests entertained, even squaring off with reality-TV star Enzo, who we’re told spent 116 days in the “Big Brother house” and has, for some reason, helicoptered in to bless the assembly.
Luciano barely makes an impression on Enzo, but it’s a glancing blow that he will leverage later on, after his family coaxes him into auditioning for the new season of Big Brother. Having made a good enough impression to be called to Rome for an interview at the famed Cinecittà, Luciano becomes convinced he’s earned a spot on the show. As the days and weeks slip by without Luciano getting a callback, he only becomes more consumed with the idea. The townspeople chatter ceaselessly about his impending fame and fortune. And the film’s latter section turns increasingly dreary as it chronicles Luciano’s descent into a kind of depression and a weird paranoia — everywhere he looks, he’s convinced TV producers are watching him, evaluating his behavior as part of their consideration of his suitability for the role. He treats beggars with kindness, gives up the food processor scam he’s been running and starts giving possessions away to the needy.
Reality doesn’t work at all if there isn’t something compelling about the sad sack caught in its downward spiral, and Arena’s performance gives the film what resonance it has. Garrone discovered the actor — a convicted and imprisoned killer — in his performances with a prisoners’ troupe, and had originally tried to spring him to work on Gomorrah. That request was denied for what may be obvious reasons, but Arena was allowed to spend time on set turning in the charismatic, un-selfconscious performance that drives Reality. In the film’s opening sections, Arena plays Luciano as a gregarious buffoon. As it progresses, and as Luciano begins to mentally abandon his family life in favor of his imagined dwelling in the Big Brother house, Arena shows how he comes undone in small ways. He’s still pleasant, with an appealing and unpretentious personality, but you feel that something has broken inside his head — that his connection with the community he loves has come undone in favor of a communion with something only imagined, and highly artificial.
The film climaxes on Good Friday, and the last sequence begins with Luciano attending a religious service held outside the Colosseum, only to steal away into the night in dogged pursuit of his meaningless dream. It ends with another aerial pullback, leaving Luciano behind in a tenaciously earned state of something resembling grace.
The irony is that, in some ways, Luciano really does become a better person over the course of the film. The Church might look favorably on his apparent selflessness — though his wife would likely argue that altruism motivated by myopia represents no improvement. (Job’s wife didn’t hold up so well, either, you may recall.) She’s right. The central metaphor makes the Big Brother house an absurd contemporary analogue to the House of God, a sardonic joke given a voluptuous visual treatment in Garrone’s closing shot.
Garrone may have a cogent point about how celebrity culture replaces religion in everyday Italian life, but this isn’t exactly undiscovered territory, and getting there turns into a bit of a slog. Absent the broad, Fellini-esque good humor of the film’s opening segments, Arena’s fine performance isn’t quite enough to keep Luciano’s fate from feeling predetermined, or to prevent Reality from coming off as too obvious a parable.