Reality: Cannes Review

Cannes Film Still Reality - H 2012

Cannes Film Still Reality - H 2012

This good material for a satire on Naples and Italian television isn’t funny enough to go into orbit.

Matteo Garrone's in Competition film follows a fisherman obsessed with making it big in reality TV.

A frantic yearning for the celebrity limelight has a predictably destructive effect on a poor fish-seller from Naples in Matteo Garrone’s Reality, a disappointingly obvious follow-up to his unsparing criminal drama Gomorra, winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes. 

Half comedy and half drama, the film struggles to find its tone amid stock characters and leisurely plotting, with nods to Fellini and Italian neorealism that leave the taste of a big, reheated pizza. It all should be funnier; still the atmospheric local kitsch wins some smiles, offering audiences the kind of laid-back, enjoyable watch that bodes well for its onshore performance in particular.

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The film could also appeal to non-Italians who found Gomorra too glancing and ambiguous to be comprehensible; here the opposite is the case, with every idea clearly laid out and often over-stated. Using their wits to escape from the poverty that surrounds them, the characters illustrate the classic Neapolitan “art of getting by.” Luciano (Aniello Arena, a lauded theater actor) has a thriving fish store in the heart of the old city, but to supplement his income runs a small scam on the side with his wife Maria (Loredana Simioli) selling kitchen “robots” to neighborhood housewives in on the deal, and then reclaiming them for the company.

Luciano’s histrionic gifts are highlighted in the opening wedding party sequence, a fairy tale of kitsch that features the newlyweds arriving at a fake Baroque restaurant in a golden coach drawn by white horses. Luciano has been begged to entertain the company dressed as a glittery drag queen, much to the amusement of his wife and kids. The lavish party includes a special guest appearance by local celeb Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), who is flown in by helicopter. Later he plays a key role in helping Luciano audition for the Italian version of Big Brother in a shopping mall.  

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What begins as a game turns serious when Luciano gets a call-back from Rome. The whole family accompanies him to Cinecittà, where lines of over-dressed and under-dressed hopefuls await their big break. Convinced he’s made an impression on the casting directors, Luciano returns to Naples totally obsessed with the show and increasingly unable to distinguish fantasy and reality. To his family’s horror, he buys into the idea that dreams come true in the magic world of television. Believing the all-powerful network has sent agents to spy on him and evaluate his every move prior to hiring him, he loses his grip in every sense.

With his whimsical face and wide-eyed smile recalling a lively younger version of the Neapolitan actor Totò, Arena is a pleasant enough guide through the dense social fabric around him. Presented just short of satire, his closely knit family is barely described beyond their physical appearance, which tends to be alarmingly overweight, and their shrilly voiced dialect and gesticulating. The aunts, uncles and cousins are hard to keep straight for this reason. Only Maria emerges in Simioli’s warm up-front performance that oozes female strength and concreteness. As Luciano’s pious co-worker Michele, veteran actor Nando Paone tries to straighten him out with Christian kindness and another trip to Rome, this time on a Good Friday pilgrimage to the torch-lit Colosseum. But Luciano eludes him and makes his way to the kingdom of his dreams, like a happy child oblivious of all else.

Maybe the film should be read as a metaphor for the decline of Italian cinema itself, surpassed in the popular imagination by trash TV and no longer able to connect with any kind of reality around it. There are some interesting hooks here to Fellini’s anti-private television diatribe Ginger and Fred and maybe an echo of Anna Magnani pushing her way through the crowds to audition her daughter in Visconti’s Bellissima.  But clearly today’s reality has gone far beyond all that. Nothing in the film hits the same sour note as a few video shots of mindless, carousing figures in bed captured for Big Brother.

Costume designer Maurizio Millenotti, noted for his work with Fellini, unleashes his fantasy in the party and disco scenes. From the fairy tale wedding to the back lots of Cinecittà and the crumbling nobility of ancient Neapolitan buildings, Garrone and production designer Paolo Bonfini create dreamy locations for their utterly down-to-earth characters, colorfully lensed by Marco Onorato.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition), May 18, 2012.
Production companies: Archimede, Fandango, Le Pacte, Garance Capital, Rai Cinema
Cast: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone, Graziella Mariana, Nello Iorio, Nunzia Schiano, Rosaria D’Urso, Giuseppina Cervizzi, Claudia Gerini, Raffaele Ferrante, Paola Minaccioni, Ciro Petrone, Salvatore Misticone,
Director: Mauro Garrone
Screenwriters: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
Producers: Matteo Garrone, Domenico Procacci
Co-producer: Jean Labadie
Director of photography: Marco Onorato
Production designer: Paolo Bonfini
Costumes: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Alexander Desplat
Sales Agent: Fandango Portobello
No rating, 115 minutes.