Reality, 115 mins, rated TBC, opens 4 July 2013


(This is my review as published in the July issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

For a country that appointed the media baron Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister no less than three times, it is not surprising that Italy might be obsessed with the cult of celebrity. Woody Allen devoted a whole strand of his recent film To Rome with Love (Review, LSJ, October 2012) to the story of an ordinary Italian who suddenly and for no reason becomes a celebrity. And according to Matteo Garrone’s latest fictional film, Reality, Italians are absolutely entranced by reality TV shows like Big Brother, idolizing the participants as if they had real talent.

Director and screenwriter Matteo Garrone’s previous film, Gomorrah (2008) won many awards, including Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes. It’s a terrific and hair-raising depiction of organized crime in contemporary Naples.

Superficially, Reality seems miles away from that grim territory. Although also set in Naples, it’s a comedy, and a bit of a fantasy. But it covers serious issues too. And a concrete link to that other Naples is the fact that lead actor Aniello Arena was a mafia hit man, and learnt his acting craft in gaol.

Luciano (Arena) is a fishmonger. He’s also something of an entertainer. While he’s at a wedding (at an incredible function centre, where brides and grooms arrive in horse-drawn carriages as if they were Cinderella and her prince), the other guests beg Luciano to do his “act”. He’s always the life of the party, but this time his drag show is overshadowed by the presence of “Enzo”, famous for having survived a series of Big Brother on TV. Everyone’s mad for Enzo, including Luciano’s youngest daughter, who wants his autograph. Luciano sets out to get it, and so he begins a kind of acquaintance with Enzo – before Enzo is whisked away in a helicopter.

Luciano returns to the business of selling fish. He and his wife Maria (Loredana Simioli) supplement their income by a scam that involves selling automatic pasta-and-sauce-making machines to people who don’t want them, and then everyone gets a payoff (except the tax office of course). One day the Big Brother auditions come to town, and Luciano’s family wants him to audition. He’s reluctant, but they convince him to apply.

From then on Luciano is obsessed. He must get a callback. He must get on the show. His future depends on it. He sells his fish stand so that he can be ready when the call comes. He’s convinced that the makers of Big Brother are watching him, seeing how he behaves. He begins to lose touch with reality. He’s a changed man, verging on the paranoid.

Reality is a subtle and clever analysis of aspects of what’s wrong with contemporary Italian society. On the surface, it’s an amusing tale of one man’s stupid obsession with a TV show. But without preaching, Garrone shows us the corruption and crime that is just accepted as commonplace, the spongers who don’t seem to work, lounging around at fun parks and in town squares, and the empty idolization of no-talent, no-taste fools who do nothing and are paid handsomely for it. If it is all true, no wonder Italy teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

Garrone also shows us Luciano’s extended family. His mother, aunts and assorted nieces and nephews all live in the one huge run-down building, washing and eating together, and sleeping in adjoining rooms. They go shopping together, they go out together. While reminiscent of the Big Brother house, Luciano’s house is the real reality.

 Filming of the Italian Big Brother (Grande Fratelli) actually does take place at Cinecittà, the world-famous Italian film studio, where films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and Satyricon (1969) were made. In some of his own scenes Garrone invokes memories of the great Federico Fellini by using bizarre imagery. One scene in a nightclub could have come straight out of Satyricon. Another echoes, in miniature, the famous opening shot of La Dolce Vita in which a statue of Christ flies over Rome in a helicopter. Of course in La Dolce Vita, Fellini took an early look at the emptiness of celebrity.

This is a timely and witty film with another excellent music score from Alexandre Desplat. Turn off Big Brother, MasterChef and The Voice. Go see Reality.