I loved the opening forty minutes of Matteo Garrone’s new feature, Reality, when I saw it at Cannes last year. The director’s follow up to his brilliant underworld drama Gommorah, it’s a dark valentine to the follies of romantic optimism given to a blinding psychosis that speaks to the inherent desperation, even lunacy, of living in Berlusconi’s Italy.
Reality exists in the vein of the popular commedia all’Italiana, mode of the frantic and acerbic social comedies of the post-war Italian cinema. Against that framework, Garrone trafficks in more polemical brand of documentary and satirical political exposes of the present.
The ellipsis between fiction and documentary is rarely more transparent. I didn’t recognize any of the actors, but the bodies and faces all possess an eerie verisimilitude. Garrone also draws some small, lovely moments from the protagonist’s colorful and quarrelsome extended family. I was very saddened to hear about the death, just after the Cannes premiere, of the director’s superb cinematographer, Marco Onarato, his stepfather. The two had a great rapport, and Garrone is especially good, through his bold depiction of color, his off-center framing and exaggerated rhythms, at capturing the manic desperation of the Neopolitan lower middle class.
Anchored by a complex and wired central performance by actor Aniello Arena, the movie plays like an Italian The King of Comedy, except it lacks that pathos and blistering social critique Martin Scorsese and his great collaborator, Robert De Niro, created in their serpentine and brittle creation.
At Cannes, the most interesting aspect of the film emerged following its premiere about Arena being issued a temporary release from a 20-year prison sentence to do the part. He has been serving time for a reported murder. (Garrone told me when I interviewed for his previous film how recruited the mostly non-actors in prisons and the local ghettos to capture the down low, authentic actions, movements and attitudes of the participants.)
That strange and haunting detail accounts for Arena’s particularly sharp and knotty performance that makes palpable the character’s sharp self-awareness of solitude and entrapment.
The Scorsese (and Francis Ford Coppola’s first Godfather) connection is made explicit by the movie’s flamboyant and baroque opening, executed by Garrone in a sinuous and unbroken take, largely hand-held, of a colorful and spectacularly over the top wedding that introduces Arena’s Neopolitan fish store owner and family cut up. Given the classic clown name of Luciano, he’s got a classic look, a square, muscled body and open though hard lined face that is both suggestive and also furtive, even closed off.
Even when he winces, you feel it.
Enlisted as a drag queen to spoof the wedding solemnity, he finds himself in a slightly awkward exchange with Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a local celebrity due to his involvement on the Italian edition of Big Brother. Luciano shows a playful and provocative side, making fun of his own masculinity, for instance, sufficiently indicative of a wit and ease of playing different roles. He’s the father of two adorably cherubic girls and slightly older son with his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli).
The family’s social and economic aspirations include their own brand of treachery and amoral behavior, evidenced by the local con involving a “robot kitchenette,” Luciana and Maria pull off against the unsuspecting locals in an effort to supplement their income and maintain a more comfortable existence.
Enzo, the local television celebrity, has his own mantra, “Never give up.” Like Jerry Lewis’ talk show host in The King of Comedy, Enzo is the covetous and self-made star Luciano desperately hopes to duplicate. After Enzo helps Luciano secure an audition for the reality show at a local shopping mall, Luciano and his family are whisked to Rome’s legendary Cinecitta Studios for an audience with the show’s producers. After his extended personal interview, Luciano returns home convinced his participation on the show is inevitable.
Slowly, his ambition gives way to a startling obsession and finally delusion. Back in Naples, Luciano reveals himself a man unchecked by any sense of balance or foresight, wholly consumed by pursuing his comic dream. He remains inventive and unabashed, illustrated by his final encounter with Enzo when he finds a very novel way to interact with his personal idol at a garish nightclub.
Though Maria, friends and relatives warn him by his increasingly impulsive and self-defeating actions, like selling his business or giving away most of the family’s possessions, Luciano remains steadfast in the absoluteness of his private destiny. Garrone never condescends or ridicules his subject.
The problem, for me, is after the terrific opening, the rhtythms are reptetitive and fairly monotonous. Luciano’s brand of delusion is hard to dramatize, either emotionally or psychologically. The filmmaking is frequently bravura filmmaking, but it’s not connected to the corresponding psychological realism or penetrating social analysis.
It’s unfortunate since the movie never fails to impress visually, like a majestic moment of one of the girls barreling down a waterslide, Reality becomes too repetitive and one-note to give the material any jolt of excitement. It’s like watching an addict fall prey to their demons. It’s inevitable, off-putting and anti-dramatic.
Garrone recovers from the sluggish middle sections for a rousing and fascinating finale that leaves more questions than answers. Reality is brittle and psychologically unconvincing, the conceit dazzling though incomplete and insufficiently realized. Still, the talent is undeniable.Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures