Editor’s note: This review originally ran during Cannes 2012, but we’re re-running it as the film’s limited theatrical release begins this weekend.

Those expecting Matteo Garrone to follow up 2008′s excellent Gomorrah with another authentic new world crime drama might be surprised to hear that his latest project replaces the seedy criminal underworld for a thoroughly modern exploration of the current fascination with reality TV and its particular brand of disposable fame.

In Reality, we follow the tragi-comic story of Luciano (Aniello Arena), a Neapolitan fishmonger with aspirations to find his fortune on the Italian version of Big Brother at the behest of his family who see him as a star and inspired by the success of former housemate Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante). We also follow his subsequent delusional breakdown.

Reality is effectively Garrone’s take on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, replacing the golden ticket with the chance to make it into the Big Brother House and instead of giving Charlie his fantastical pay-off, tricking him and trapping him in a perpetual hunt through Wonka bars for his one big shot. Offered an irresistible glimpse at what the prize would mean for his future, and intoxicated with the modern Fame Disease, Luciano quickly turns from charming family man to an obsessive, paranoid reclusive, convinced that the casting team of Big Brother are testing him for selection long after the show has started.

Thanks to Garrone’s script and direction, and a very good performance from newcomer Aniello Arena (who bears a striking resemblance to the bastard love child of Sylvester Stallone and Christoph Waltz), Luciano’s transformation is completely compelling, and it is both tragic and very funny to watch him take the bait of Garrone’s manipulated version of post-Reality TV fame. That version, which has Enzo universally adored and apparently rich and famous might trick the protagonist, but Garrone doesn’t want it to trick us: Enzo’s fame has in fact reduced him to making identikit personal appearances at weddings and trussed up in a harness to fly through the air of a nightclub. We are gently persuaded to question why fame has come to that, and laugh at the perversity of those, like Luciano, who see it as in any way worthy of aspiration.

Garrone also invites his audience to explore the fundamental difference between realism and the cannibalized idea of televisual “reality,” not only through obvious difference (in the BB House everyone is beautiful and seemingly care-free) but also on a more critical level in the way Luciano feels forced to manipulate his own reality in order to qualify as good enough for Reality TV. That he never realizes the irony of that fact is one of the film’s most enduring satirical touches, which turn their attention both to the Reality TV animal, and those who consume its lies.

Though he is still committed to making authentic politicized comments – on the invasive culture of disposable celebrity primarily – Garrone takes something of a departure from the Italian neo-realist approach of Gomorrah, playing with grotesques, and even flirting with trip-like sequences that ultimately invite the audience to question what is real and what is not. This is no overly arty project though, as 90% of the action still plays out as kitchen sink realism, a decision that makes Luciano’s behavior all the more clownish.

To push that even further, Garrone also chooses to again film with near documentary-like sparseness, the camera following characters as a member of their group rather than framing them with distance, or wasting too much time on non-functional aesthetic composition: his portrait of the un-sanitized banality of living striking just the right counter-balance to Luciano’s delusions of fame and glory.

And thankfully, Garrone never stoops to forcing the message down our throats – the decision to go for gentle comedy, rather than dark, biting satire values the audience’s ability to connect the dots and work out what Garrone is trying to say for ourselves. The film is better for it, and an open ending brilliantly refuses to offer any judgement on how Luciano’s story ends, in a final blur of the reality/fantasy divide.

While the visuals avoid ostentation (other than in the very final shot), Alexandre Desplat‘s score – his second to play in Competition after Moonrise Kingdom – is far more traditionally cinematic, adding highly-glossed magical touches to the image that hint at a family-friendly redemptive ending that never actually comes, and generally adding a Hollywood sheen to the film’s surface that a less accomplished score would have missed. And for the second successive time, I can heartily admit that as soon as this Cannes merry-go-round stops, I will be picking up Desplat’s soundtrack for my own collection. The man is a composing genius.

The only criticism here is that the story would probably have worked better as a short film, and 115 minutes is a long time to spend at the mercy of such a slow pace, even if the film’s substance is very good. But putting that aside, Garrone’s self-proclaimed “televisual fable” strikes the right notes without insistence, inviting explorations of its central themes with its forthright quest for realism and remaining entertaining at the same time.

And if you scratch the surface a little, it is possible to find some of the ideas key to “gangster films” – celebrity aspirations, a sense of family and community, moral ambiguity and the enduring difference between the attractive excess of one world, and the drab reality of the real one.

The Upside: The timely commentary on Reality TV and disposable fame is very appropriate, and Aniello Arena’s performance might well have announced a new bright talent.

The Downside: Sadly, it’s just too long – a fact probably not helped by how uncomfortable the seats in the theaters here immediately become after the 80 minute mark. It’s a conspiracy, I swear to God.

Complete Cannes 2012 Coverage


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