The blowhard standing in the Annie Hall movie line was right, of course: After a while, Federico Fellini really did get to be an “indulgent” filmmaker. But before that dreaded word Felliniesque was turned into a lazy pop- cultural signifier for clowns, dwarves, big-bosomed earth- mother Italian sirens, and a general wearying frenzy of circuslike surrealism, it was a term — and a film aesthetic — that meant something, that conjured the modern madness of everyday life. Reality, the first film directed by Matteo Garrone since Gomorra (2008) — his coldly visionary dissection of an Italian society run at every level by the Mafia — is the rare movie that has some of that old, classic Fellini insanity in its overheated blood. It’s about a man named Luciano (played by Aniello Arena, pictured above, who’s like a jumpy, head-in-the-clouds Frank Stallone), a fish seller in Naples who is pushed into auditioning for the Italian version of the perennial (if not eternal) reality-TV show Big Brother.
At first, he has no interest; he’s just doing it to please his young daughter. But in the days after his audition, while he’s waiting to hear if he makes the cut, he comes down with a serious case of Big Brother fever — which, apparently, is pretty easy to do in Italy, since the Italians (if this movie is to be believed) have, if it’s even possible, a far more intense relationship with reality TV than we do. We meet one celebrity member of the Big Brother cast named Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), who’s greeted like a total rock star wherever he goes. The movie hardly needs to tell us that he’s a hipster putz who got lucky; the hubbub that surrounds him is a hilariously jacked-up yet hollow Fellini carnival. “Never give up!” is his idiot slogan, and the joke is that it means next to nothing. What it means is, Never give up trying to be a reality-TV star! When Luciano goes in for his audition, we see an endless line of would-be Big Brother contestants, and the camera then pulls back, with poetic deliberation, to reveal that they’re standing at the hallowed gates of Cinecittà, the classic film studio in Rome where everything from La Dolce Vita to Cleopatra to Romeo and Juliet was filmed. The gravity of that shot is Garrone’s way of capturing that a show like Big Brother, while it may represent the degredation of entertainment, now occupies the same place in society that great movies once did. In Reality, the fake culture of “reality” has replaced art, and is on its way to replacing life, too.
Luciano, despite his modest seafood business, is no mere cuddly peddler. He runs a scam on the side (it has to do with getting old ladies to purchase domestic robots), and that undertow of ruthlessness keeps him from being an easy-to-ridicule dupe, even as he begins to tumble into a black hole of delusion. He starts to suspect that every visitor to the local courtyard market is a producer from Big Brother, coming to scout him out, to see if he’s an “authentic” enough personality for the show. He gives away fish, and even some of his family’s possessions (to the understandable horror of his wife), all in the hopes that he’ll please his secret observers, thereby securing the chance to be drafted onto the show — which, he reasons, will pay off in spades. By the time he’s eyeing a live cricket on the wall, thinking that the bug is spying on him, Reality has become a psycho version of The Truman Show in which all the surveillance and manipulation is in the hero’s head. As the film goes on, Luciano goes from being Truman Burbank to a fame-starved version of Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. He’s waiting for the reality stardom that, we begin to suspect, will never come.
Reality sputters somewhat in its second half; it could have used weirder and wilder twists. Yet I was held by Garrone’s nearly religious vision of the place that reality TV has come to occupy. In an American satire, a character like Luciano would be mocked, however affectionately, for the pettiness of his fame-whore dreams. But Garrone, coming from the Catholic culture of Italy, is much more metaphysical about what reality TV represents. We see bits and pieces of the Italian Big Brother on television, with slinky models and gigolos lounging around on couches and in bed, doing next to nothing. The show makes Jersey Shore look like a play by Eugene O’Neill, yet it’s Garrone’s audacious conceit that Luciano doesn’t just want to join this Andy Warhol dead zone for the purposes of wealth or celebrity. He wants to cross over to The Other Side, to a place more real than reality. It is, in every sense, the Afterlife.
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