December 9, 2013
The best reality shall be televised
Matteo Garrone’s latest film delves into the poetry of garish TV-inspired dreams
If you could choose your best reality, what would it look like? How real would you want it and what would you be willing to forgo in order to secure it? For Naples fishmonger Luciano, the most coveted reality is a show. A TV show, at that, and one that some may think outdated: Big Brother. He is willing to sacrifice everything to get on the show and he wants it to be so real that it eventually alters his life to a sanity-threatening degree.
After a harrowing foray into the world of organized crime in Gomorrah (2008), Matteo Garrone returns to his setting of choice — Naples — in Reality (2012), this time with a much lighter material, although just as enthralling. Both films won him the Grand Prize of the Jury in Cannes, where the two were nominated for a Palme d’Or.
Reality is a captivating mix of allegory, satire and drama, overflowing with local colour and even bordering, at times, on the grotesque. Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a middle-aged married man, a father of three with a rather large extended family of boisterous, overweight cousins, aunts and uncles who add a strong touch of gaudiness to the human landscape of Reality. The opening scene is a telling sample of the film’s course: an apparently fairytale-like golden carriage glides across an empty road toward a castle-like resort, where the dream-like bride and groom alight to greet their families and friends and release two flocks of snowy doves into a spotless blue sky. And then the camera turns to Luciano’s family, hurrying their overdressed and overweight personas to a small bridge for the mandatory group photo.
Garrone’s take on lower middle-class Neapolitans features every possible ingredient of a kitsch world, topped off with a starry appearance by a former member of the Big Brother cast, whom Luciano’s people obviously worships as a hero.
The tacky glamour of the wedding fades into the dark alley leading to Luciano’s crumbling home, which seems to be holding in place by sheer force of fate. In the light of day, Luciano’s life begins to unravel: he’s living by his wits, making ends meet with what he manages to sell at his fish stall, with the additional aid of a small scam he runs on the side with his wife, reselling “kitchen robots” to neighbourhood housewives.
One day, however, his struggles take a turn for the unexpected: Luciano attends a Big Brother audition, at his three-year-old daughter’s plea, and is then invited to an interview in Rome. While the reality show was hardly of consequence for the Naples fishmonger in the beginning, the trip to Rome takes Luciano from the comfort of his everyday tacky life to the dream of becoming a glorified TV star who would only have to worry about spending his money, instead of fretting over not having enough to spend, as he is constantly doing now.
Garrone takes us beyond the gates of the famous Cinecittà studios where Big Brother was actually shot, but doesn’t allow us to witness Luciano’s interview. He emerges excited, persuaded he’s been chosen and determined to change his life in preparation for the producers’ call.
And this is when Garrone’s film takes a very subtle plunge into Luciano’s new reality, into the dreamy expectations which lead the protagonist to alter everything to suit his higher purpose. Luciano sells his market stall so he can use the money to refurbish his home and get ready in case Big Brother officials come to call. He then slides further into the abyss of this new reality and starts imagining he’s being followed by studio people checking if he’s worthy of the Big Brother house. Further down the road, his delusional dedication to his goal makes him give away furniture, clothing and food to homeless people, persuaded that his generosity will increase his odds of getting on the show. By this time, a new season is already airing but Luciano clings to the idea that he’ll be called to join at a later moment.
It’s a downhill ride from here, as the clash between Luciano’s former and current reality seems not to touch the former hero turned antihero. He wants in the House. And he eventually manages to sneak in, uninvited, in the dead of night, to sit on a white lounge chair and stare into his reality’s ceiling with wide-open, happy, glazed eyes.
Garrone’s film may seem a metaphor enclosing a stark criticism of reality shows and television-altered realities, but it’s hardly that. Or it’s so much more than that. Big Brother is not even a tenth of the character it would be in such a case. In fact, the show is pushed to the background by Luciano’s crumbling world. As one of the best chronicler of Berlusconi-era Italian culture, Garrone digs deeper: his film is not about a show promising best-rate reality to an entire world of viewers, it’s about reality ensuring the world gets a best-rate show.
The world is performing, at all times, and Luciano’s downfall comes from believing so much in the performance that he turns it into reality.