Italian director Matteo Garrone’s “Reality” has a few lessons to impart about reality TV and its impact on Italian culture. Never mind that these were served up with more force a few years ago in the documentary “Videocracy.”
Celebrity worship has taken over the social role religion used to play in Western culture, although in some cases the two coexist. The niche for humble working-class men in European life is disappearing, with few people content anymore with jobs like selling fish on the street. Reality TV and its stars offer the false promise that anyone can be a celebrity, whereas stardom used to require at least a modicum of singing or acting talent. It’s easy to become completely obsessed with the world of spectacle, even to the point where one’s grip on sanity becomes tenuous.
These ideas are mostly true, but they’re banal as well. They’ve been stated many times over — just Google “Jersey Shore op-ed” —and for its first two-thirds, they’re all “Reality” has to offer. Then, the film turns into a Christian allegory, in which its protagonist serves God through acts of charity while laboring under the misapprehension he is instead catering to unseen representatives from the Italian version of “Big Brother.” This conceit may be less banal but it’s just as heavy-handed. Only in its final 15 minutes does “Reality” give up on offering the audience messages and come up with anything surprising.
Fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) lives in a small town near Naples. After he meets Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former cast member of the TV show “Big Brother,” at a wedding, his children urge him to audition for a role as a housemate on the program. As he waits for a call from the show, Luciano becomes obsessed with the possibility of being chosen. He starts to follow Enzo around, even sneaking into a nightclub’s air duct to harass Enzo in the toilet. He interprets random interactions with strangers as visits from the show’s producers. The call never arrives, but Luciano becomes increasingly unbalanced, even giving away his family’s furniture to the poor in order to impress the producers.
Stylistically, Garrone is fond of moving cameras — whether they be on board helicopters, as in the film’s impressive opening shot, or Steadicam — and he makes expressive use of them. You can practically smell the salt water at Luciano’s market.
His debt to Fellini is seen not only in the film’s narrative, which riffs on “La Dolce Vita,” but in his use of a realistically large variety of body sizes among his actors. When Luciano is introduced, he seems garbed for maximum freakishness — donning a neon blue wig and a dress that exposes his many tattoos, he entertains a crowd at a wedding in unconvincing, garish drag. Arena’s rough-hewn looks suggest a genuine working-class background, but in real life he is serving a 28-year jail sentence as a hit man and was only able to appear in “Reality” on day passes from prison.
For a filmmaker who warns about the dangers of living vicariously, Garrone seems to have done his share. “Reality” mixes the influences of Fellini, Luchino Visconti’s “Bellissima,” Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” into a blender and stirs them together. Nevertheless, there’s something distinctly Italian about his film — the familial closeness, the emphasis on the town square where everyone knows (and gossips about) each other, the heavy dose of Catholic imagery and symbolism. By reality TV standards, what we see of the Italian “Big Brother” actually doesn’t seem all that outrageous; “Videocracy” made Italian TV seem far more corrupt and debauched.
Garrone’s previous film, “Gomorrah,” was widely acclaimed, particularly as a gangster film that avoided romanticizing violent crime. It also shied away from moralizing. “Reality” goes in the opposite direction — no one is going to walk away from it with any questions about what Garrone thinks of reality TV. That makes the ending quite startling. In it, the film and Luciano alike both finally show some simple curiosity about the subject of their obsession. It’s too bad the first 100 minutes couldn’t have taken the same approach.
REALITY | Directed by Matteo Garrone | Oscilloscope Laboratories | In Italian with English subtitles | Opens Mar. 15 | Angelika Film Center | 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafi