Five years ago Matteo Garrone created a stir in the world of Italian cinema with Gomorra, his devastating vision of the Neapolitan camorra and its effects on the working class communities whose lives are intertwined with organized crime. Garrone had created a new Neorealism, many argued, for his bleak and vivid depiction of the malavita from the ground up.
This term Neorealism, so often misused and misunderstood in the context of Italian film, has interesting implications in Garrone’s new film, Reality, which previewed a few nights ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and will be showing at the Angelika Film Center starting on March 15. Reality examines the nature of realism through its protagonist Luciano, a Neapolitan fishmonger who becomes obsessed with the possibility of gaining a coveted spot on Grande fratello (Big Brother), the most popular reality show in Italian television history. Luciano’s dreams quickly turn into paranoid delusions, so much so that he sells his shop, gives away his belongings, and almost destroys his marriage through the hope that TV will bring him not only fame and fortune but a true purpose to life.
The film begins with a tour de force aerial shot of Naples, with the Vesuvius volcano looming in the background. However, we do not see the picturesque Baroque historic center of the city but the nondescript outskirts, or periferia. As the camera moved over these vast residential areas I was reminded of Robert Altman and the opening and closing sequences of his film Short Cuts, in which he looks at Los Angeles not through the glamour of Hollywood but through the mundane existence of the nobodies who live on its fringes, as seen via helicopter shots of the endless stretches of suburban wasteland in which dreams never become reality. Luciano is one such nobody, and while the US trailer suggests that the film is either a touching account of the foibles of a humble man who dreams big (as in the sentimental and export-friendly Il postino) or a satire of reality shows, it is none of these.
Indeed, the film is a very dark companion piece to Gomorra, in that it also examines the nature of desire and the exploitation of the lower classes through the cultural hegemony of media. Garrone reiterated this when he spoke in person at Lincoln Center about the significance of this film, proclaiming it first and foremost a film about capitalism. The director also revealed that while Reality is presented as a fairy tale, it is actually a true story based on Garrone’s own brother-in-law who sold his Neapolitan fish stand in anticipation of an ultimately ill-fated bid to become a reality TV star.
This theme of a yearning to escape one’s own reality through the quick propulsion to fame on reality shows can resonate with US audiences in particular, where shows such as American Idol tempt audiences to envision an easy path to the American dream. Yet Luciano’s story can very much be seen as rooted in a Neapolitan tradition in which performance and spectacle are means of distracting from the very grim realities of what has always been a culturally vibrant yet incredibly poor metropolis.
Garrone’s film is fascinating to watch not just for its treatment of these themes but because it reaffirms that he is one of the few truly original directors working in Italy today (the other notables on my list are Paolo Sorrentino and Luca Guadagnino, whose film I Am Love was the subject of the previous post). Garrone does his own camerawork, and what is so striking about Reality is his use of flamboyant and technically adroit flourishes combined with many long tracking shots and pans, which serve to link the characters but also shows the reality of their daily routine. The long take is a signature motif of Neorealism, and it is in this way that I think all the critical effusion about Garrone’s “new Neorealism” has some merit. The film also makes many citations from Neorealist directors, and Garrone acknowledged his debt to masters such as Vittorio de Sica, who made many films set in Naples such as L’oro di Napoli (1954) and the opening segment of Ieri oggi e domani (1963). Elements of Fellini are also strongly present in Garrone’s use of gaudy and almost grotesque character actors, but his deep sympathy for the protagonist also reminded me of the hopeless daydreaming of the prostitute in Nights of Cabiria (1957) and Luciano’s re-channeling of his delusional desires into Catholicism, which culminates in a pilgrimage to Rome, is reminiscent of Fellini’s Roma (1972) as well. An even more overt reference is to Luchino Visconti’s Neorealist Bellissima (1951) a film about a stage mother desperate to propel her child to fame: Garrone even mimics that film’s audition sequence at Cinecittà studios.
Last but not least I should mention the star of Reality, Aniello Arena, whose face (frequently featured in close-ups) controls the emotional thrust of the narrative. Arena is a seasoned actor yet is unknown to film audiences, as his craft has been honed in the Compagnia della Fortezza theatrical troupe at Volterra prison in Tuscany where Arena is serving a life sentence. This is an interesting phenomenon that we also saw this year in the Taviani brothers’ Caesar Must Die, a feature filmed entirely in Rebibbia prison in Rome and starring the inmates of that institution as well. If so many great Italian actors are to be found in prison, we can only wonder what other marvels might someday emanate from the correctional institutions of Italy.