"Gomorrah" took the festival circuit by storm a few years ago, solidifying filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s name along with it, but I never understood the hype. What was hailed as the next coming of Martin Scorsese was more like an overblown, underdeveloped fable (it also, at best, was a rip-off of Alejandro Innaritu’s already-rote ’hyperlink-style’ cinema.) His latest film, "Reality", is another overblown fable. But this time, that’s the whole point.
Luciano is a fishmonger by day and a family man at night; a theatrical guy known as the neighborhood cad (mainly because he isn’t afraid to go broad to get a big laugh.) When we meet him, he’s cross dressing to draw a laugh out of a crew of kids, and finds himself mugging for a photo with a celebrity, Enzo, (Enzo’s in town from Italy’s version of Big Brother.) All the worship gets his daughters excited, and when a tryout for the show lands at the local mall a short time later, he talks his way into the first cut. Soon enough he’s being brought out to Rome, and having hours-long interviews with the producers of "Big Brother," where other applicants only get five minutes. Everything is going great. And then, nothing.
No one calls. Luciano gets a bit anxious. He stops commanding Garrone’s frame, and begins to occupy the fractions of it instead. Why wasn’t I accepted? Are they testing me, waiting to make a decision? Are some of my customers actually scouts, verifying my stories? Soon enough he’s convinced every bum on the street is obsessed with watching him (the subtext here is none too subtle.) Anxiety turns to depression turns to obsession.
It’s outlandish, but Garrone strikes the perfect tone. He tries not to imitate the television shows he’s lampooning, but instead gives everything an otherworldly, slightly surreal construction (if "Gomorrah" could make teenagers firing off AK’s seem like an everyday occurrence, "Reality" makes everyday occurrences feel like undiscovered experiences.) Occasionally, Garrone observes Luciano from on high, in meticulously composed frames reminiscent of Jacques Tati. But most of the time he’s puncturing the control with long, steady takes that almost seem embarrassed to observe Luciano so nakedly.
I can identify the aesthetic, but I don’t know what exactly "Reality" is, other than a unendingly cynical two-hour-long-joke. It’s too straight-faced to be comedy, too divorced from reality to be a drama, too dry to be satire, too creepy and off-putting to function as general entertainment, and too well-crafted for me to write off as a mess. It’s Garrone’s fairy tale, and I’m not convinced he cares how we react to it all - but then the film is all the better for his detachment.
It’s certainly not yet another takedown of reality television. As Luciano begins to become obsessed with the idea he’s being ’tested’, the fact that it’s a TV show and not a deity that motivates him begins to become irrelevant. Nobody ever watches Luciano on Big Brother, but he’s convinced Big Brother must be watching him.