July 30, 2015
Reality – Italy, 2012
There is, perhaps, nothing more oxymoronic than the phrase reality television, for rarely does anything we see on reality TV even remotely resemble the reality we know. There, we find men and women competing for the opportunity to date someone, people stranded on desert islands having competitions instead of working together to survive, and mothers swapping families. What appears to attract people to these shows – other than morbid curiosity and the possibility of watching a parade of emotional train wrecks – is the sense that that could be us. We could be the one in the spotlight, the one the audience cheers for, the one declared the victor at the end, the one later enjoying all the fruits of newfound fame and celebrity. All we lack, we tell ourselves, is the opportunity.
It is this world that Matteo Garrone’s Reality seeks to depict, and for the most part, the film succeeds. The film tells the story of a poor Italian named Luciano (Aniello Arena), who lives in Naples. Luciano runs a fish market and operates a money-making scheme involving buying and reselling small home robots. He is a thoroughly likeable fellow, and the film’s early moments show him as a loving husband and a good father who just can’t get ahead in life. He is also a part-time entertainer, and in the film’s opening scene – one in which present-day modernity wonderfully morphs into 19th century luxury in the blink of an eye – we see him don make-up and a wig and improvise with a celebrity who was paid to make an appearance at a wedding. The guests applaud his efforts, and family members can be heard congratulating him and shouting that familiar refrain, “You should go on TV.”
The celebrity who makes the appearance at the party is named Enzo, and his character fascinated me. He is greeted by the kinds of cheers that one normally associates with those given to a rock star or famous actor, and he seems to have little to do other than smile and encourage people not to give up their dreams. He is essentially an ornament at a disco and a greeter at a casting call, but what is it exactly that he does? Apparently, not much. He didn’t even win the show he was on. In other words, he is famous simply for being famous.
Also, in the film’s opening scene, we watch as Luciano tries to make his daughter happy by making sure she takes a picture with Enzo. He succeeds in this, yet it is clear just who his daughter’s hero is. This provides Luciano the incentive he needs to audition for the television show Big Brother, and it is this seemingly innocuous act that sets in motion a series of life-altering events. This all leads to a moment that is both telling and ridiculous, as Luciano and his family stand outside his home and are showered with applause for having conducted what everyone suspects was a successful audition. It is the kind of reception usually reserved for a returning soldier or someone who has actually done a brave deed. Here, it is given because they think Luciano will soon be rich and famous. It’s quite a difference.
There is a lot to recommend about Reality, from its gritty depiction of modern-day Naples and its realistic look at the difficult lives of some of its residents to its peek into a celebrity-obsessed culture that sees heroes in people whose only claim to fame is being on television and who see the television as their only path to prosperity and the good life. I also admired the way the film used actors who look like everyday people. None of the women in the film would be considered typical Hollywood starlets, and none of the men, with the possible exception of Luciano, could be called Hollywood hunks. We all know people like them. I also found Luciano’s personal path intriguing. This is a man who starts off just wanting to please his children and ends up increasingly obsessed with and reliant upon the idea of being on television. He comes to view it as his only salvation.
For the first hour and a half, the film moves at an excellent pace, allowing for character development and for situations to be fully explored, and I was drawn into it. I found myself invested in Luciano’s story, and I deeply wanted things to work out for him. And then suddenly the film lost me. It started making leaps in time and relying on quick cuts instead of longer scenes that fleshed out events and characters. In one scene, we’re told Luciano’s in therapy; in another, he goes to church. Never are we shown any visual proof of his improvement or decline. The film just moves forward, as if it no longer has time to spare on necessary details. Instead, it elects to end with a scene that is hard to read. If it is meant to be seen as real, it is not believable, and if it is meant to show Luciano’s mental state, it is unnecessary. We have already seen more than enough evidence of his obsession.
In the end, Reality is a complicated film. It is a satisfying experience overall, yet it could have been a very powerful statement about the dangers of today’s celebrity/fame-obsessed culture. Luciano’s actions are simply too extreme to be applied to the public at large, making his experiences unique rather than universal. This may have been the director’s intent, yet it seems like a missed opportunity. We live in a world in which people look for instant confirmation of their online popularity, in which celebrities are created simply because they have famous last names, and in which too many people think of themselves as potential stars, and a movie about obsession and losing touch with reality could have a lot to say about this. To its credit, Reality does at first, but ultimately the film fades down the stretch, becoming too focused on its main character’s extreme case of paranoia and not enough of the universal pull of fame and a misplaced sense of relevance. It feels like a missed opportunity. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
*Reality is in Italian with English subtitles