At Cannes this year, Matteo Garrone's follow up to Gomorrah was awarded the Grand Prix (which, however "grand" it may sound, is actually the second prize) by the jury headed by compatriot Nanni Moretti. There was sniffing at the announcement, and critical mutterings that suggested Moretti had favoured a fellow Italian unjustifiably. Granted, Reality has its flaws, as did its predecessor - but overall I found it to be one of the bravest, most exciting new pieces of work I've seen in a long time.
Garrone had said he wanted to make something lighter following 2008′s tale of crime lords and brutal killing in Naples. Here he turns his creative gaze to the bizarre, reality-TV world of Grande Fratello (Big Brother) and the fame and fascination garnered by its contestants.
The film's opening shot sets the tone gloriously: Alexandre Desplat's score mimics the tinkly magic of Danny Elfman over a two-minute helicopter shot that scans first across the city of Naples before zooming in on a horse-drawn carriage driven by courtiers in powdered wigs. Pulled through gritty, ordinary streets, this anachronism enters enormous wrought iron gates and pulls up to a lavish wedding venue. Continuously tracking, the documentary-style camerawork sticks to the gaudy couple that emerges from the coach and proceeds through a routine of confetti and white doves. The fact that neither looks very comfortable or to be having the best day of their lives is indicative of what's to come.
Enter our hero, Luciano the fishmonger, whose gregarious extended family all love and applaud him as the life and soul of the party. Luciano is struck by the hyperbolic popularity of Grande Fratello contestant Enzo, so when his children push him to audition for the show, Luciano enters into the spirit of things with great gusto.
Garrone may have gone a bit soft, but he certainly hasn't lost his edge. The larger-than-life family shout and cajole like Italian Eastenders, garishly sequinned on the outside, then pensively support-stockinged when the night is over. With the exception of Gomorrah's lead who has a cameo behind the bar, most of this cast will be new to us, adding to the sense of non-fiction, fly-on-the-stucco film-making. The camera swirls and gets up in your face, but the brilliant actors carry on oblivious to such intrusion.
Garrone has a touch for casting novices and getting incredibly realistic performances; none more so than our hero, as played by first-timer Aniello Arena. Prior to this, Arena had only ever acted in prison where he is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence. This staggering piece of information captivated the press conference at Cannes, and while there was no confirmation of what crime he is in for, the beefy, tattooed fellow with jaw as sharp as a blade presumably didn't have to go method to play the small-time crook who runs a racket to support his meagre fishery income. Apparently Arena was let out of jail by day to film, then locked up again each night. (How ironic, then, that his first role is someone who longs to be incarcerated in the Big Brother house and under surveillance 24/7.) Arena is supported by an incredible cast, and it is fascinating to watch the film a second time with the knowledge of his real life, and marvel at how naturally his "wife" and "kids" perform alongside him.
With sharp, gaudy colours, exquisite production design (Naples never looked balmier or quainter) and enormous energy, Reality is one heck of a ride. It is somewhat disturbing, then, when Luciano's bright-eyed enthusiasm (described by the director as being like Pinocchio) starts to take a sinister slide into the darkness of delusion and obsession, necessarily bringing us all down to earth with a nasty jolt. Garrone is none too subtle in exploring his theme but film students will have a whale of a time dissecting this masterpiece for years to come.
* Sarah Watt is the Sunday Star Times film reviewer. Read her blog here.
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