By Richard Haridy
January 15, 2014
After the masterful Gommorah in 2008, Matteo Garrone offers up a radically different experience with Reality, a satirical examination of the obsessively encompassing culture surrounding reality television.
Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a family man with modest needs. He runs a fish market and supplements his income through some relatively innocuous scams. When his family urge him to audition for the reality television show Big Brother, Luciano is initially reluctant but eventually succumbs and it is here that the lure of fame begins to take hold. Energised by his audition Luciano returns to his small town convinced that he has been selected for the show. After someone tells him that the show often send undercover agents out to verify contestants stories, Luciano begins to believe he is constantly being watched and evaluated.
The film takes a fascinating turn as Luciano begins to help the homeless and give away all his possessions in the hopes it will impress his silent observers. Garrone doesn’t shy away from making this religious analogy clear, highlighting Luciano’s saintly reality television obsession as a modern day form of Christianity. Big Brother is God and we are all his acolytes. The starkly surreal final moments really hammer home this deliciously satirical point as Luciano finally reaches his personal ‘heaven’.
While Garrone’s critique of a culture devoured by vacuousness is ultimately a little glib, the film’s revelatory strength comes from Arena’s remarkable central performance. A convicted murderer serving a life sentence, he was allowed out on day release to film Reality and his sense of wonder and enchantment as the film progresses is truly touching. Garrone never makes fun of Luciano and his community but rather offers up a genuine sense of loving warmth towards these characters who he sees as spiritually abandoned by an empty consumer culture. This gentle touch is what elevates Reality out of what could have easily been a cynical exercise in laughing at an underclass of people seduced by commercial noise.
In the end, Reality is a little too thin to be truly satisfying. However, Garrone’s elegant visual palette and Arena’s remarkable central performance shift a potentially trite message into a gloriously warm and novel experience.
Reality is now available on Quickflix.