The Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Reality signifies the moral bankruptcy and delirium of Silvio Berlusconi’s government-as-game-show regime in a way that is both bitterly comical and frustrating in its shortsightedness. Seen through the eyes of fish-market owner and low-tier swindler Luciano (Aniello Arena), Naples, once the classical setting of such tremendous works as Vittorio De Sica’s Shoe Shine and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, has been transformed into a figurative waiting line for reality-television Mecca, particularly the cloud nine of mega-hit Big Brother. Though initially only passingly interested in this culture, even Luciano falls prey to the promise of fame and money that a spot on the show promises when, after acing an off-the-cuff audition at his local mall, he is called to Rome as a prospective finalist.
Following up his admirably chilling 2008 breakthrough, Gomorrah, Garrone here ties the glitter-encrusted decay of his native country’s social concern to the corrosion of celebrity. At his audition, Luciano spills his guts to the show’s psychologist and is sure that he has sufficiently wowed the casting directors to secure a spot, returning to Naples as a hometown hero. To Luciano, true character instantly equals popularity, but as the show’s premiere grows closer, he has yet to receive a phone call and begins to withdraw from his family, especially his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), and his three children.
Garrone’s angry view of celebrity is encapsulated in Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), Big Brother’s last winner, who ceaselessly provides endorsements and appearances all over Naples, and whose shameless shilling is depicted as ideal behavior in the mind of the populace. Enzo rates as a deity under the Berlusconi and Luciano is only the film’s most devout believer, obsessively following Enzo at all his appearances and slowly drifting into a paranoid fantasia. Believing the show runners have sent out spies to see if he is worthy, Luciano begins giving away his possessions and spends his days adulating in front of the boob tube, and it’s here that Garrone cleverly ties Luciano’s intense concern with fame and popularized identification to another kind of obsession: Catholicism.
Garrone shows his own devotion to the cinema via a number of breathtaking crane and tracking shots, many of which unfold in long takes worthy of Fellini, who is obviously Garrone’s chosen saint here, whereas Gomorrah found him worshipping in front of Francesco Rosi’s alter. And Arena, a formerly incarcerated mafia hit man, has energy and charisma to spare in his debut performance, creating a charming yet deeply unsettling character in the vein of Rupert Pupkin. Indeed, his breakthrough performance (and his past) bolster the film’s fascination with performance as perceived reality; once Luciano purges himself to the show runners, he feels the need to create a new persona, one that can be easily popularized and adored.
It’s evident even as he begins attending church with friend and co-worker Michele (Nando Paone), but Garrone’s script, co-written with his Gomorrah collaborators Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso and Maurizio Brauccio, misses the follow-through. Religion ends up being his potential savior, rather than just another light for his invented persona to bloom under. In essence, Garrone’s potent anger exists in an unquestioned vacuum in which the criminality and devout Catholicism elemental to Italian society are seen as mere secondary issues to the vacuous nature of reality television. By the time Luciano decides to break into the Big Brother house, Reality curdles from satire to flippant, hulled-out righteousness, and it reaches towards Garrone’s cynical attitude towards modern Italian cinema as well, preferring a calcified nostalgia over any belief in the future of cinema. It’s a beautifully shot, well-acted and shrewdly directed production of a half-assed screed, though he delivers at least one solid punch to the gut: The great Cinecitta studios, where everyone from Fellini to Scorsese worked, is seen overrun by cadres of gaudy, would-be contestants, each one dying to obliterate the self for tawdry infamy.