Taking its name from the descriptor for a particular type of television programme, the name itself was already something of a misnomer before director Matteo Garrone got his hands on it, Reality tells the tale of a working class Neapolitan fishmonger who sees a chance for stardom and throws himself into making it happen.
Opening with a beautiful long take – the film is filled with gliding tracking shots and majestic crane shots – the camera finally finds a subject that it sticks with and we are introduced to Luciano (Aniello Arena), a man who appears to like being the centre of attention. Luciano lives surrounded by his extended family in Naples, eking out a relatively humble but happy existence running a fish stall, which he also owns.
Following an audition for the Italian Big Brother television show Luciano’s head begins to be filled with the promise of fame and fortune. He quickly begins to believe that he is destined to appear in Big Brother, egged on by his presumably well-meaning friends and family, and suspects that the producers of the show are observing him in an effort to ascertain if he is ‘good enough’ for the show. In an effort to prove this to them he begins acting charitably and preparing himself for his big chance on the show. One of the funniest moments in the film – Reality is in a way a comedy of sorts – revolves around Luciano’s efforts to appear more charitable by giving away his possessions. The scenes are well played for comedy and Arena’s wide-eyed enthusiastic performance adds greatly to these, and many other, sequences.
These scenes of Luciano giving away his possessions, much to his wife’s annoyance and then despair, also represent Garrone at his most overtly symbolically religious in Reality, with Luciano playing a modern day crazed prophet in an oddly unsatisfying religious fable. The religious themes continue throughout and it is no coincidence that the last few moments involve an encounter with the pope and a final shot that implies a very celestial ascension.
The religious thematic concerns coalesce well with the more modern concerns regarding the effect of fame, or even just the promise of fame, but they never amount to anything beyond a glancing blow at a subject that has far more fascinating potential for commentary than we see here. Simply the idea too that so-called reality television has rather far reaching negative impacts seems like an obvious concept to explore, unless you have something more enlightening to say.
Also, if one has no vested interest in this particular cultural phenomenon the film will most likely seem a little insane and at times even bafflingly unbelievable. The idea that someone would want to be on Big Brother in the first place is one that seems to be readily accepted by Garrone and his fellow screenwriters without any deep consideration it seems; beyond a brief suggestion that Luciano is fond of attention the film does little to actually speak to why this is a desire at all, let alone one that can so easily be fed.
Reality is formally excellent, the cinematography from Marco Onorato even borders on the sublime at times, the story is adequate in construction and the performances are rather winsome – especially Arena as Luciano – but there is so much lacking in Reality in terms of thematic depth. This would be easily forgiveable if we were not so often reminded throughout the film, with hints and minor diversions, that there are much more interesting ideas waiting to be explored. Sadly often as shallow as the televisual waste matter that provides its subject Reality is a well made but often empty effort from Garrone.