With all the charisma and machismo of Fellini and sprinkled throughout a Bunuelian surreality, Italian director Matteo Garrone’s Reality is a bizarre and compelling character study of a man possessed by an elusive fantasy. As the follow-up to 2008’s Gomorrah, Garrone crafts a brightly colored satire of capitalism and celebrity obsession set in the hyper-real world of reality television—juxtaposed by the crumbling facade of Naples.
Scored by the brilliant Alexandre Desplat, Reality tells the story of a Neopolitan fishmonger, Luciano, with an natural affinity for entertainment—his larger-than-life personality both charming and excessive. But when his family and neighbors urge him to audition for Grande Frattello—the Italian version of Big Brother—his life begins to spiral out of control. After his successful audition, Luciano eagerly awaits a call from producers, growing more and more intoxicated with the idea of fame and what being on the show could mean for himself and his legacy. He becomes increasingly more consumed by the possibility that his mundane life will be replaced, not only with glamour of celebrity, but with a dream-like sense of wonder and immortality. The upbeat and comedic tone that permeates the first half of the film begin to grow darker and more psychological as we see Luciano unravel into a delusional world of his own.
Having premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Garrone’s mesmerizing dark fantasy took home the Grand Prix, which he had won for Gomorrah as well. But what spins the film into its own realm of the bizarre is at the center of the film: Aniello Arena as Luciano, a man whom Garrone found performing in a prison acting troupe. The talented actor, whose performance feels reminiscent of Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy, has been praised for his grand role, but remains in jail serving his life sentence for double murder. With Reality, we see Garrone explore his incredible neorealist style to tell a fantastical tale that feels at once completely absurd and arrestingly common to our human desires.
Last week I had the chance to sit down with Garrone in New York to talk about the real Luciano behind the film, the existential fairy tale, and working with Aniello Arena.
Can you tell me about the initial idea for the story? It’s something that feels so much different from your last film; was this an idea you’d been struck with for a while?
Yes, well the story starts from a true story—it happened to the brother of my wife. So I thought this story could be surprising, and also I wanted to switch from Gommorah into a comedy. I know it’s a comedy that’s very dark. We started to work on this project, and then I realized that it was probably not so different from Gommorah. That was a movie about the crime system, but at the same time it was a movie where the characters are victims of the crime system—slaves in a way. And at the same time, Reality is a movie about a victim of the show business system. Reality is a black fairytale, like Gommorah was for me. Of course, the style is different, but the work on trying to make an interpretation of reality and bringing it in another dimension is the same. It’s a movie that I feel very close to.
You’re right—it is still a comedy, although there are elements that are terribly tragic.
Yes, well, it starts like a comedy.
I really enjoyed that and also how it was very much a modern tale, because this obsession with celebrity is a modern issue. But there was something timeless about it, which enhanced that idea of it being a fairy tale.
We wanted to create this fantastic, imaginary journey of Luciano in a place, in a country, that’s full of contradictions. And also a journey—a psychological journey—because the second part of the movie is much more psychological.
And you make it very hard to watch this person that you just want to stop but you can’t.
In the second part of the film, you can relate more with his family than with him. But it’s also a movie that talks about desire, illusion, and the temptation of escape from everyday life. But it’s also a contagion. Luciano is pushed by the family and neighbors to do this and, so it’s not just him—it’s a society. It’s a movie about capitalism, in a way.
It’s not as if he simply had this vacuous need for fame. It was more about the desire to immortalize yourself and make you understand your reason for existence.
Existential, I think. To be there means that he can prove to exist to everybody. For a moment you put your head above the many, above the mass—a certification of existence. It became an existential problem, in a way.
Well that’s certainly something most people can relate to on some level, this desire to elevate their life from the mundane.
Yes, Luciano is very close to me in a way. For me, it’s always very important to create a relationship with the character and find a way to tell the story of this character with humanity. I don’t want to judge, to put myself on the top and say what is wrong and what is right. I always try to find a way to lead this character emotionally on their journey. So many aspects of Luciano are close to me and I hope to many other people.
It didn’t seem like you were judging him or criticizing anyone, moreso just an exploration of one man’s inability to separate reality from fantasy.
He tries to build a character like a saint in a way, and then that’s the beginning of when he begins to lose his identity—the tragedy. And so it’s sort of Pirandello story in a way. I think that’s very interesting, this connection between character and person. It’s very modern.
So can you tell me about casting Aniello Arena as Luciano?
All the actors come from theater and Luciano comes from a company of prisoners.
How did you first come across him?
My father was a critic of theater, so I used to go to the theater a lot with my father and we were big fans of this company. I noticed Aniello and we decided to work together. We wanted to work first on Gommorah, but the judge didn’t allow it because 20 years before, when Aniello was 22, he was condemned for a crime connected to Gommorah; he was in a clan and probably killed an enemy of another clan. And then I tried again with Reality and finally we got permission. It was a great experience for us to work together. I think his performance has something unique because it comes from that experience—not about the experience of his past connected to the crime, but the fact that he stayed for 20 years in jail. So you can see that in his performance: the light in his eyes and surprise that he has when he goes through certain situations, like the disco. He really discovers something and that was very important because the character has to be very naïve and pure, and I think he has that in his eye. He acts with the eyes.
And this must have felt like a fantasy to him, who I am sure never thought he would be starring in a film like this. He was fantastic, it’s just a shame we can’t see more of him. Did it make it difficult for shooting?
No, no we had all the time that we wanted because the permission was for work. Of course, at the end of the day he has to go back to prison, but the only problems were sometimes we couldn’t change locations. We had to give the police all the details where we were shooting because they often come to the set, and I remember the first time they came he was dressed like a woman. It was the beginning scene, so they were really shocked; they were asking for the prisoner and he arrived dressed like a woman, and they were pretty disgusted by that.
It is a very fantastical absurd, surrealist story but filmed very naturalistically, following the characters’ lives like a documentary. Did you want to set up this juxtaposition between the two realms?
Yeah, it’s part of the subtle line between realism and this surreal dimension. That’s the most difficult, finding the balance between the two. This story could be unbelievable if you don’t have that and don’t pay attention to details and follow this balance between these two dimensions. But it is something I always do in my movies.
Would you say this film and Luciano’s predicament is very specific to Italy and Italian culture? This idea of consumption and media oversaturation is universal, but I suppose the specifics of celebrity differ.
I think it’s connected to capitalism and fate, so I hope it’s universal to the West. Of course, the power of television in Italy is very strong—could probably be stronger than other countries. But I think, as I said before, the desires that this guy has, the illusions of the dreams, are universal—I hope. When we were working on this project, we were thinking that it could be universal.
Was there a particular reason you wanted to shoot the film in Naples? You said before that it was a place of contradictions.
I also wanted to remain faithful to the true story. It happened in Naples, so and after Gommorah I wanted to change because I like to change often. And if it’s happening in Naples, it’s better to remain faithful to that place. Naples, yes, is wonderful city, and a very rich inspiration, but at the same time full of contradictions. You can see these places that are very connected to the past.
It physically, architecturally, feels very old.
Old, yet at the same time, other parts are very modern, like outlets and commercial centers and water parks. But at the same time, other parts are very crumbling.
Your sister’s brother, who the real story belonged to—has he seen the film?
Of course! The real Luciano participated. He came often on the set to give advice to the actor. And then with the money from the movie he bought a new fish shop in Naples, and it’s going very well now. There are also old ladies that go there to take pictures. So it’s good: a happy ending.
And did you have any other cinematic influences going into the film? I could see possibly hints of Fellini and Bunuel.
Well, probably yes I would say the great Italian directors of the ’60s—Fellini, De Sicca, for sure. Probably for the second part I would say Polanski.
That sort of psychological unraveling.
The Tenant, you remember?
Yes, of course.
So many, but I hope to have found my personal way.
I would say so! And that opening shot from above of the carriage was fantastic. From the moment, you could tell right away that this was going to explore some sort of strange fantasy or fairy tale.
Yeah, a fairy tale from beginning. We made that with a helicopter and it was not easy to find the carriage because it was very small.
All of your characters in the film have these larger-than-life personalities. Is that something you look for in an actor or something you more so enjoy bringing out as a director?
The family members in the film are all from theater; most of them are from cabaret, from comedy. So of course the family was very important for this movie because they’re like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. In the beginning they push him to lose himself in a way, and then by the end they don’t realize they were accomplices. That was something that happened in real life; I don’t think my wife’s family realized they were accomplices because they hoped he could succeed and hoped they could escape from daily life.