Where Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah incited shock in international cinema by exposing the violence that incarcerates modern day Naples, his follow-up, Reality, speaks to many of the stereotypes the world already possesses for Italy. Fit with meatball Italians in tight pants, overweight women, and gaudy weddings only a few paint jobs removed from La Dolce Vita, Reality brushes through the surface of Naples with none of the harshness that the director had previously introduced.
The Italian version of ‘Big Brother’ captivates many of the normal citizens who look up to the contestants like they are huge movie stars. Our lead character, Luciano, a working class fish seller whose also mixed up in selling robotic bread makers to old women, gets forced into trying out for the show. Reluctant at first, Luciano begins to get obsessed with the attention that might come to him from succeeding on a reality television sensation.
Aloof, quiet, and reticent to make any decisions at all, Luciano’s a passive character pushed around by the loudmouthed family always in his way. Might the entry into ‘Big Brother’ be more about standing out from beyond his overwhelming kin than rubbing up on beautiful women in short skirts? Possibly. But we are never afforded what Luciano wants or why he might grow invested in such a trivial pursuit. Yet, his slow obsessive breakdown that results from doing anything he can to get on the show (including giving away his Earthly belongings), take up much of Reality’s running time.
Reality clicks best when we see Luciano making up outlandish ideas in his brain, convinced that the producers of ‘Big Brother’ may be lurking around corners or in store windows to observe his every move. Unfortunately, much of his breakdown starts to happen off-screen, told to us through the characters around him. Those expecting to see the kind of obsessive self-destruction that unravels in The Conversation will be disappointed. For Luciano, the blood in the toilet is a short skit where he thinks a cricket might actually be a spy staring him down.
Sometimes comical, sometimes weakly drawn as drama, Reality suffers from tonal indecision that’s made worse by non-cohesive shooting styles. Occasionally, like the wonderful opening image, the camera swoops around on cranes under Danny Elfman-esque music, but often the camera gets trapped in handheld close-ups reminiscent of the gritty voice in Gomorrah. Combined with the disengaged main character, the aesthetic inconsistencies prevent Reality from being an effective emotional experience. Even though the comical bits are enough to inspire smirks, Reality seems like it should have been funnier. Dressed up like a satire, the comments on society should have been sharper and the critiques on cultural desires more biting.
As a thesis statement about people enraptured by false idols and obsessed with self-attention, Reality speaks to an international love for vanity. However, the narrative never unfolds in a manner that allows these ideas to flourish, often stirring a spaghetti sauce of superficial concepts trapped in a thinly humorous package. If only Luciano made us want to feel for his journey, perhaps Reality could have been a classic parable for our very strange world today. [B]