Matteo Garrone, the Italian filmmaker, took his realistic approach to cinéma vérité quite seriously when he made Gomorra, an extraordinary film about the corruption of the Neapolitan mafia. He was able to make that frank assessment of the Camorra, the crime syndicate that pervades the life of Naples, only by collusion with that same mafia, as has recently been alleged. He discovered one of his favorite actors in preparation for Gomorra, Aniello Arena, a former Camorra operative who is currently in prison, serving a life sentence for a multiple murder. Garrone's plan was reportedly to have Arena play one of the criminals in Gomorra, a daring move that was, perhaps not surprisingly, not allowed by the prison authorities. Garrone stuck to his guns, however, creating his next film with Arena as the lead, and this time Arena was allowed to work on the project, accompanied by guards to the set each day.
Reality, winner of the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival, remains in Naples -- a smog-bedecked shot of Vesuvius dominates the opening sequence -- but it is a more colorful, fanciful, yet ultimately just as tragic look at that turbulent city. Arena plays Luciano, a father of several young children who makes ends meet by selling fish and running a scam with his long-suffering wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), and his saintly brother Michele (Nando Paone). They belong to a large family, both in number and size, as loud and crazy as that shown so lovingly in Fellini's Amarcord, with which Reality has much in common. Luciano has a talent for outrageous gestures, and when he shows up at a big family wedding in drag, he runs across Enzo, a man who is a celebrity only because he has been featured for a long run on Grande Fratello, an Italian reality show based on the Big Brother franchise, with a group of regular people locked together inside a house filled with TV cameras. Luciano's obsession with the show begins when his kids prevail on him to audition for it.
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Luciano actually gets called to Rome for a screen test -- on the famed lot of Cinecittà, itself a pointed reference to the greatness of Italian cinema past juxtaposed with the banality of Grande Fratello -- and the possibility of fame and wealth becomes all too real for the open-hearted fishmonger. Although this appears to be a Naples without the Camorra -- in that sense, there is an element of fantasist denial of reality in this rather sweet, odd story (the somewhat uneven, many-handed screenplay is by Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Ugo Chiti, and Maurizio Braucci) -- the distant specter of poverty is a driving force for Luciano and his family, who live near one another in a large, moldering apartment building. With a painter's discerning eye, Garrone and his cinematographer, Marco Onorato, capture a city riotous with color. The opening sequence, with the camera descending god-like from Vesuvius, follows a Cinderella-style horse-drawn coach driving through the streets of Naples to its destination, a Vegas-like hotel complex with grottos and ball rooms for weddings, one of which is occupied by Luciano's family. In its juxtaposition of the grotesque and charming, these scenes set the tone for this story of the hunger for fame among the normal, which will play out in all its sweet, slightly disturbing chaos.
This film opens today at Landmark's E Street Cinema.