Matteo Garrone’s Reality is a well thought-out satire on fame and the pursuit of celebrity in Berlusconi’s reality TV-obsessed Italy.
Biting Back by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Reality takes us straight back into the joyless world of the Neapolitan lower classes, under the shadow of Vesuvius, last seen in the hard-hitting Gomorrah by the same director. Reality mirrored Gomorrah’s Grand Prix win at Cannes in 2012 but is played out in an altogether different key. With many of the same cast, this time the focus is on a single narrative thread: fishmonger and small-time comedian Luciano dreams of being plucked from his hum-drum existence to take part in the holy of holies of Italian reality TV, Grande Fratello, better known to us as Big Brother.
Opening with a suitably Baroque Southern Italian wedding, Luciano provides the entertainment as one of his comic personas. The star of the show however is Enzo: a local boy made good giving a paid personal appearance by helicopter after finding fame with a 116-day stint in the hedonistic Big Brother house. Luciano and his family idolise him as he tirelessly repeats the empty refrain that you should “never give up on your dreams”. Struggling to make ends meet in the fish-selling businesses and supplementing the family income dealing semi-legally in Robotina kitchen appliances with the help of some wily neighbourhood nonne, Luciano is encouraged by his wife to take part in the Grande Fratello auditions when they come to town. This might be his chance to finally hit the big time and make all their dreams come true; they’d be set for life, one greedily enthusiastic relative points out.
As hundreds of hopefuls line up hoping to take part – “I’ve got an economics degree and I want to be spotted to become a CEO”, one delusional fame-hungry applicant announces – the hapless Luciano arrives too late to audition. All is not lost, his “pal” Enzo is there, and, after much persuasion, convinces the production staff to give Luciano a turn in front of the camera. Despite his lacklustre and unconvincing speech, Luciano gets the call and heads up to Rome with the whole family for the next round.
Dressed in their finery and staggering under the weight of stuffed Tupperware containers to ward off the dangers of any foreign Roman food, the family’s trip to the bright lights of Cinecittà seems at first to have been a successful one. Luciano is given a hero’s welcome on his return home. He suddenly has a goal, a direction in life. He is so convinced of having aced the audition and that it is only a matter of time until his dream is fulfilled, that he decides to sell his fish shop and spend the proceeds on smartening up the house in time for the inevitable interviews. Tentative at first, Luciano’s wife Maria is swept up by his enthusiasm and soon the entire family and neighbourhood is caught up in the excitement and on tenterhooks at every ringing phone.
Luciano begins to see hidden cameras and concealed tests at every turn: a shellfish customer claims to be visiting from Rome, a man with a clipboard lingers at the end of the street, a beggar approaches him for free fish and it is only after he has angrily turned him away that a repentant Luciano realises this must have been a Big Brother-related test of his philanthropy. Yet still nothing. Despite refusing to give up, Luciano becomes increasingly desperate as his loosening grip on his own reality begins to drive his wife to distraction.
Maria eventually walks out as Luciano gives away all their hard-earned worldly goods to the poor to impress the imaginary TV executives that apparently lurk around every corner. Even as the series of Big Brother begins without him and the family crowd around the television, there is a teaser that extra housemates will soon be added, an injection of hope to Luciano’s undaunted dream. When a cricket, or grillo, appears unseasonably at his home, his Orwellian suspicions go into overdrive as he becomes convinced it contains a hidden camera. Maria even catches him filming himself in a mock diary room-cum-broom cupboard. Ultimately, the doctor’s diagnosis predicts Luciano’s obsession will lessen with the conclusion of the series, and Reality’s low-key ending, coming as a delicate antidote to the film’s brash emotions, seems to point to that fact.
Big Brother may have ceased to be of much relevance in the UK, but in Italy, where reality television across Berlusconi’s Mediaset networks and beyond has done so much to shape audience’s psyches in recent decades, fame-hungry viewers in impoverished communities, with few other options beyond organised crime, still view it as a viable escape route. A fable suggesting that you don’t even have to be a contestant in a reality television programme for it to ruin your life, Reality is a thoroughly watchable cautionary tale that comes at a time when Italy’s political and social future seem as precarious as ever.
Reality is released on 22nd March 2013 in the UK