“Reality”: Reality TV Paranoia

A richly empathetic experience, last year's Cannes Grand Prix winner from director Matteo Garrone (and a handful of co-writers) takes serious yet humorous pride in bearing witness to an aching soul. At the urging of his boisterous family, a Naples fishmonger and small-time scam artist reluctantly auditions for the Italian version of Big Brother. Then, while awaiting word from the show's producers, he decides they're spying on him, and becomes obsessed with landing the part. If a dark media-culture comedy seems a little soft for Garrone, who before this directed the bleak mafia drama Gomorrah, it may help to know that his lead performer here took up acting while serving a life sentence for actually being a mob hit-man. That's the extraordinary and charismatic Aniello Arena, who plays the would-be contestant like somebody who clearly has a stake in redemption. The storytelling style is fluid and expansive, with a well-controlled visual scheme — all the whites seem slightly yellowed, like the whole world has hepatitis. Garrone's comment on the culture of Reality TV isn't especially novel, but what's crucial is how he's managed to personalize and nationalize it, how shrewdly he makes perverse fame-madness seem like one more aspect of timeworn Catholicism, and also a birthright for a generation weaned on Fellini.

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