This review was first published on May 19, 2012 as part of our coverage of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival
Many of us first became aware of Italian director Matteo Garrone a few years ago, when his "Gomorrah," a brutally unflinching look at modern organized crime, earned praise at Cannes, Toronto and on the art-house circuit. How has Garrone followed this? With "Reality," a satiric take on celebrity culture that is 100 percent different from "Gomorrah." You'd barely know the films were made by members of the same species, let alone the same guy.
The first several minutes of "Reality" are a whimsical slice-of-life trip through Naples, starting with what looks like a fairy tale wedding (complete with horse-drawn carriage) and continuing through the joyous reception and aftermath. There's no indication at first which, if any, of these vivid characters will be the focus of the story or what the story might even be about. We're just enjoying the ambience of the rambling vignettes.
It evolves that a local fishmonger by the name of Luciano (Aniello Arena) fancies himself an entertainer and thinks stardom is his destiny -- his right, even. With a broad smile reminiscent of Jean Dujardin's in "The Artist" and an equally Dujardinian eagerness to please, Luciano will do anything for a laugh. His three young children and miscellaneous nieces and cousins think he's a crack-up. His wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), who works at an Apple-like electronics retailer, is somewhat less enthusiastic.
Luciano's dreams are encouraged by the success of Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a nondescript man who has parlayed his success as a contestant on Italy's "Big Brother" into an actual livelihood. Enzo has not become an actor or performer, mind you; he is famous simply for being famous, appearing before wild crowds at mall openings and such. Enzo is proof that anyone can be a star, so Luciano sets his sights on following his path, starting with an audition for "Big Brother."
That's when things take a turn for the surreal. Convinced that the "Big Brother" people are seriously considering him, Luciano also becomes convinced that they are scrutinizing every aspect of his life first, to make sure he's a suitable contestant. The homeless guy who begs for food? Better give him something to eat, in case the "Big Brother" spies are watching. Where some people try to live their lives exceptionally in order to please God and earn a place in heaven, Luciano does it to satisfy producers and earn a place on TV.
Garrone's astute observation is that in the modern age, fame is our religion.
With a jaunty musical score by Alexandre Desplat and a pleasant visual style aided by Marco Onorato's colorful cinematography, Garrone (who wrote the screenplay with Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso and Maurizio Braucci) delivers a story that's part fairy tale, part religious allegory and part scathing indictment. But the comedy remains light, even when we're laughing at Luciano's delusion, and Garrone's point-making never gets heavy-handed. Arena's performance is so effortlessly ingratiating and charismatic that even when the character is a hopeless buffoon, you smile at his optimism. And then maybe you think, "Wow, this guy is a nutter." And then maybe you think, "But it would be cool to be on TV..." And so it goes.