Posted by Ian Mantgani on 20th October, 2012
In the same way the Eddie Murphy comedy Life had a portentous title but referred to a life sentence, Matteo Garrone’s Reality sounds incisively all-encompassing but refers to reality-TV. Anielo Arena gives a terrific performance as a Neapolitan fishmonger whose kids encourage him to go on the show Big Brother. At first attending an audition to shut them up, he soon becomes seized by the idea that being selected could give him some fame and financial stability, deluding himself pathetically about when the call will come and whether media spies are sizing up his actions – you can see the gears turning in Arena’s head, until finally he is reduced to the dead-eyed smiling face of a faithful simpleton.
I’ve heard people claim that Reality is behind the times. They say that Big Brother and its ilk was more appropriate for satire in the late 90s, whereas now the hot topic is online media. Ignoring the fact that the show is in fact still thriving in Italy, the criticism is still invalid because Reality is not trying to be topical about instant TV celebrity – it’s more about the insidious nature of desire, even madness, and how people can be sold things they didn’t know they wanted.
The film has a lot of long takes that run on, creating a pace that gets a bit wearying without leaving much to cut. There are redundant lines of dialogue, where Arena and his friends and family talk explicitly about issues that have been established visually in previous scenes. In terms of pure technical issues, Reality is beautifully made. The grainy cinematography emphasises pinks, yellows and light blues (I haven’t been able to find out the stock used, but it has the look of Ektachrome 16mm reversal film) – the toy-shop colour palette contrasts with the handheld, documentary-like camera movement to create a beautiful, if abstract, comment on the gap between childish dreams and adult life. The opening wedding sequence, which has a Renaissance-era wedding carriage surreally trundling through a modern-day suburb, establishes early the theme of fantastical delusions being what so many of us would ideally escape into. The score, by Alexandre Desplat, has a Danny Elfman-ish quality of eerie choral voices and percussion chimes, creating a fairytale vibe but making it ominous.
Arena’s journey has a few killer scenes. He ends up stalking a former Big Brother contestant to get advice on the process of being selected. The character, Enzo, is given the smug catchphrase “Never give up!”, and at one point quotes it to our hero before barely giving him enough time to get out of earshot before following it up with “Go fuck yourself.” Later, Arena speaks to some nuns, thinking they’re talent scouts in disguise, and asks them what he must do to “get into the house.” He means the Big Brother compound, but naturally they think he’s talking about the house of God, and give him spiritual advice that he nods at patiently – Garrone doesn’t just send up the idea of celebrity as a religion, but, as with so many artistic Italians who fancy themselves liberated from their nation’s oppressive Catholicism, proposes religion as a con game.
So even if Reality doesn’t quite work, if you stick with it the film is beautiful to look at and containing much to admire. The ending doesn’t make any kind of sense from a logistical point of view, so we’re invited to wonder if in fact our experience as viewers is as blurred a line between reality and fantasy as the experience of Arena’s character. Another abstract point not very clearly made, but considering how spellbindingly it plays as a sequence, a nifty little note to go out on.