Today in unexpected Cannes headline news: a convicted felon turns in one
of the best performances at the festival thus far (and it’s not Roman
Polanski — rimshot! — who was the subject of a softball vanity
documentary which screened here earlier in the week, and isn’t really
worth talking about).
After a very well-received screening of Reality — in which Luciano (Aniello Arena), a fishmonger in contemporary Naples, auditions for the Italian version of Big Brother
on a whim, and then becomes increasingly obsessed with the show and all
it represents as he waits to hear back about being cast — director
Matteo Garrone (last seen at Cannes with the 2008 mafia epic Gomorrah) confirmed
that Arena couldn’t attend the festival … because he’s in prison.
Garrone apparently tried to cast Arena, who has been part of a prison
theater company for much of his two decades behind bars, in Gomorrah, but couldn’t get the convict’s temporary release approved for that bloody crime film. There is no violence in Reality
— which begins in the key of Capra and then becomes darker and
stranger as its protagonist drifts further and further away from, ahem,
“reality” — but it would be hard not to read the film as an indictment
of contemporary Italy.
As much as reality TV is a universal scourge, Garrone’s film feels quite specific to the role it plays in Italian culture. Reality could be thought of as a fictional counterpart to Videocracy,
Erik Gandini’s impressionistic 2009 documentary tracing the toxic side
effects of the media monopoly held by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi,
who became the most powerful man in the land by building an empire based
largely on exploitative game shows. Gandini’s film argues that by
putting the televised spectacle of “reality” at the center of not just
pop culture but also the political and economic spheres, Berlusconi is
responsible for recalibrating the nation’s values, turning reality TV
stardom into the nation’s most in-demand “career.”
A fixture of his village and large family sprawled across a charming,
crumbly structure at the head of the town square, Luciano is dragged
away from work (well, from his side gig orchestrating the black market
trade of kitchen “robots”) by a pleading call from his young daughters,
demanding he come down to the mall and try out for Big Brother.
Luciano finagles his way into the audition by appealing to Enzo, a
former contestant whom Luciano met when Enzo was the
flown-in-by-helicopter hired talent at a family wedding — thus usurping
Luciano’s own apparently long-held gig as the family’s after-dinner
Then Luciano gets a call back, which involves a psychiatric
evaluation. It goes well, or so Luciano thinks (“They were like, ‘Stop,
that’s enough,” he brags to his family), and he goes back to Napoli
certain he’s won a place on the show, a conviction only strengthened
when strangers start visiting the fish market — Luciano can only assume
they’re spies sent “from the TV” to determine that he truly deserves a
slot in the Big Brother house.
But days and weeks pass, and Big Brother doesn’t call. The
more they ignore him, the more obsessed Luciano gets, repeatedly
insisting the show could “solve all our problems,” and his anxiety leads
to increasingly self-destructive behavior. Finally his friends and
family try to intervene in what his wife diagnoses as “Big Brother
Shock.” Ultimately, Luciano makes an illicit pilgrimage to the set of
the show, leading to a beautiful daze of a final sequence: Luciano
wanders seemingly unnoticed through this framing device for televised
iniquity which, with its blown-out lighting framing the beatific Luciano
with cloud-like puffs of light, has the aesthetics of heaven.
The film is most interesting when subtly probing the conflicts
between traditional values and hyper-techno-modernism, as well as sacred
and profane. The village fish monger/light racketeer whose only
ambition is to become a reality TV idol is the epitome of the ultimately
untenable butting-up of old and new worlds.
The film’s overall vibe feels a bit dated, but that won’t matter on a long enough timeline. If the syndrome of “Big Brother
Shock” was the social disease of the Berlusconi era — an era which
technically ended in November when he stepped down as PM — then you
could say the disease itself began to enter remission just last month,
when Berlusconi’s Mediaset entity, which acquired a one-third stake in Big Brother production company Endemol in 2007, sold off its remaining interest. As a satirical portrait of that era and that disease, Reality‘s real subversion is in preserving a moment of madness for future generations.
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