The classic fairy tale is an artificial creation in Matteo Garrone’s Reality, something wedding planners and television producers manipulate to create the best possible pomp and circumstance product for their Pavlovian audiences. It’s especially dangerous when gullible, wish-fulfilling viewers buy into their own faux happily-ever-after, truly believing they have a God-given right to popularity. Andy Warhol famously stated as much years before the dawn of our current technological age, but Garrone (director of 2008's much-lauded Gomorrah) manages to visualize the tragic consequences of one man’s delusionary digital dreams with an endlessly nimble cinematic approach. Movement and sound become the necessary tools artists and businesspeople use to warp personal perspective.
Wonderfully staged crane shots rise, fall, and then ascend again in this agile film, maximizing the importance of angle, height, and duration in relation to the fragile point-of-view of lead character, Luciano (Aniello Arena). The broken heart and oblivious soul of Reality, Luciano is a cocky family man who owns and operates a failing fish shop. Conducting shady deals on the side to keep his causal family lifestyle afloat, Luciano rarely shows a hint of stress, even dabbling in cross-dressing as a kind of public performance piece. The character’s reassuring demeanor in the face of economic distress and potentially life-altering situations proves him to be a natural ham, constantly wishing to be the center of attention. After Luciano’s family begs him to audition for Italian Big Brother, he barely bats an eye before diving head first at the chance to gain national notoriety and wealth.
Reality’s stunning opening helicopter shot, which tracks over Naples’s skyline before centering on a classic Victorian horse-drawn carriage speeding down the street, nicely juxtaposes fantasy and reality in the same landscape. This motif continues as Luciano goes through the Big Brother auditioning process, adopting the go-getter attitude most ambitious amateur performers need in order to succeed. Alexandre Desplat’s swooning score further suggests Luciano is creating his own fairy-tale façade out of the bits and pieces of an unlikely future scenario. Family and friends give Luciano false hope at the most inopportune times, while cagey executives mislead him during a lengthy interview simply to mine personal information for future use. His is a truly modern tableau, marked by hollow surfaces posing as bags of money.
Luciano’s brazen dedication to living vicariously through pop culture symbols, lingo, and products eventually drives him toward madness, and in turn the ultimate realization of his own momentary fantasyland. Surveillance cameras and split screens define his dreams, while all sense of his former self evaporates without much resistance.. The cost of living this existence trickles down to affect Luciano’s children and his wife, who leaves Luciano after he becomes increasingly paranoid, thinking mysterious figures are silently “judging” him from afar.
This small temporal gap in a crumbling marriage crystallizes the importance of togetherness in Reality. Garrone feels deeply for Luciano’s taxing plight, but never lets him escape the mire of his actions. His self-imposed encasement inside the container of “reality television” is a reflection of personal retreat, not an assessment of society’s many contradictions and failures. In Reality, giving up on ourselves (and each other) is the real tragedy, the true epidemic of character, devoid of a happy ending, real or imagined.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.