Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah did for Naples what The Wire did for Baltimore: offer a devastating panorama of a city in crisis. Four years later, as Italian television debuted its own Gomorrah-inspired crime-series, Garrone has moved on to his next project, Reality, which opens in America this week. Like Gomorrah, Reality won the Grand Prix at Cannes and focuses on lower-class Neapolitans. But this time, the tone is lighter: with more flair and fewer guns.
“After Gomorrah I wanted a change,” Garrone tells me in the West Village offices of Oscilloscope Labs. “Something more of a comedy. I was looking for ideas and heard about what happened to my wife’s brother. So the film is actually inspired on a true story–that of my brother-in-law.”
Reality follows a local fish vendor, Luciano, as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the TV-show Big Brother. Bewitched by the possibility of being a contestant, the show takes over his life: he can’t function, he’s a ghost to his children, hooked on the television show the way a junkie is on his drug–or a disciple on his guru. But what could have been played like a joke turns slowly in Garrone’s masterful hands into a sad, postmodern parable, what he calls a “black fairytale.” When Luciano travels to Cinecittà to audition for the show, his journey feels as magical as a pilgrimage. Back in Naples, and convinced that producers from the show are following him (adding an extra layer of irony to the Big Brother name), he transforms himself from a petty con-artist into a modern-day martyr whose family looks on in panic.
“After shooting the film,” Garrone says in his thick accent, “I realized Reality was not so different from Gomorrah. The first film was about the victims at the bottom of the crime system. Reality is about the victims at the bottom of the show-business system. In the end it’s about the same thing: capitalism.”
Throughout the film, carnivalesque set-pieces depict a culture run amok. The film opens with a gaudy, provincial wedding where a local celebrity makes a quick helicopter-aided cameo, spouting nonsense about love and family. “Never give up,” he says in English (subtitled so we can understand him) before flashing a million-dollar smile and plastic thumbs-up. In this scene and others, Garrone has updated the famous hi-jinx of Fellini to the era not just of Big Brother but of Jersey Shore. The result is a film as tailor-made for America as Naples. Even with the exotic Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop, the fake tans, perms, and obesity of Luciano’s family are disturbingly familiar. Ditto for the water-parks, fluorescent malls, and strobe-lit clubs.
“I try to watch what’s happening in my country,” Garrone tells me. “I’m like a reporter. Except I never try to make just an imitation–always an interpretation. That’s the most difficult thing to do: make an interpretation of what you see and bring another dimension to reality.” As to the accusation that he looks down on his characters: “I can understand how some people may feel that way, but it’s the opposite of what I want to do. For me, this film is about human conflict–conflicts that are inside myself, in a way.”
Garrone tells me this with such apparent sincerity and sensitivity to put aside any lingering doubts. The director’s face, it occurs to me, resembles that of his character Luciano: bright, nakedly expressive, full of boyish energy. And Garrone’s honest directorial style–composed of handheld tracking shots quietly attentive to moments of surprise–helps imbue the story with a realism that strips the title of its easy irony.
But what makes the film most persuasive in its pathos is the performance given by first-timer Aniello Arena: himself a native Neapolitan and prison inmate granted temporary release to act in the film. His face glows on screen with the artlessness of a man playing someone close to himself, for whom the film is more a dream than a day’s work. At first, his large angular nose resembles the famous profile of the Count of Urbino. But slowly, it harks back to another, more whimsical, Italian icon. Speaking of Arena, Garrone says, “He’s a great actor, very generous. His character is naive, but pure. A sort of modern Pinocchio.”
As Luciano spirals further and further into his obsession with reality TV–interpreting the host’s every word as an oracle meant exclusively for him–his wife, initially supportive of his dream, threatens to leave him and take the children with her. Luciano can barely hear her, so entranced is he by the glow of the television. Moments like these hover on the border between farce and tragedy. Luciano’s story is at once ridiculous and emblematic of every impossible hope we’ve ever harbored. There must be thousands of runners up out there still thinking the train of their destiny either left without them,or else is about to appear on the platform.
“It’s a movie about someone who builds a character to reach his artificial paradise,” Garrone says as he sips his coffee. He looks out over the skyline of downtown. “This seemed to me at the heart of our society today, and something I could really identify with. It’s important that I understand the character and that my way of telling the story is human.”
At the film’s end, when Luciano finally arrives at the center of his unnameable desire, the echo is of another film about a delusional outsider, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. As in that film’s ambiguous denouement, Reality gives us a haunting vision that’s as absurdly extreme as it is close to home.