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Thanks to series like The Real Housewives and their ilk, we now exist in a world in which there’s reality and “reality.” Reality, Matteo Garrone’s more lighthearted and gracefully filmed follow-up to his portrayal of organized crime in Italy, 2008’s Gomorrah, delves into yet another connotation of the word, expanding its definition to mean one’s personal delusion as well as the part-real, mostly scripted realm of television’s zeitgeisty programming—and, of course, how life actually is.
Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a charming middle-age-ish fishmonger in Naples who’s seemingly satisfied being a husband and father when his kids cajole him into trying out for the reality show Big Brother. He’s reluctant but gets excited after his initial auditions, telling his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), that he “shocked them” during his interviews and that the show’s psychologist talked to him for much longer than the other contestants.
Luciano and Maria also pull scams on the side involving the kitchen robots that she sells, and he becomes convinced that they’ll be able to give up their current way of living should he get on the show. Soon it’s all Luciano talks about, running to the phone each time it rings. His friends and family try to sustain their excitement. But the longer he holds on to his dream—and begins altering his day-to-day behavior, certain that Big Brother’s producers are spying on him—the more they worry. Or, in Maria’s case, get angry.
Even before Luciano can voluntarily imprison himself for an audience’s entertainment, he’s already imprisoning himself by doing things he’d never normally do if he didn’t have the dangling carrot of fame and, he believes, fortune, within reach. He quits scamming. He gives—and gives—to the poor. And he spends increasing amounts of time in front of the TV, smiling in its glow, certain that any day now others will be watching him.
There’s an irony to Luciano’s arc that’s a bit shocking: Arena is currently serving a life sentence for a crime he committed when he was a teenager, and he filmed Reality using day passes he was granted for good behavior. Besides prison plays, this is his first go as an actor, and it’s a fine debut. Arena’s Luciano is a bit manic, for sure, with an occasionally overwhelming, insistent personality, a facility for clownish mugging, and a propensity for talking too much, too fast. But it’s just the type of character you’d expect to become obsessed with the idea of being on TV, risking everything that was once more important to him for the chance.
Considering that four screenwriters, including Garrone, worked on the script, the story is surprisingly tidy and straightforward—at least until the very end, when it’s unclear whether the action is fantasy or fact. Either way, the film veers from comedy to creepy, glimpsing what can become of someone who gets swallowed up by the rabbit hole. Luciano wants so badly to be embraced by a TV program’s version of reality, he loses his grip on his own.