Opens Fri. April 5 at Meridian. Rated R. 115 minutes.
Judging from Italian movies about Italian television, that nation’s TV shows consist of nothing but T&A and shameful exhibitionism. Everything that Italian intellectuals loathe about broadcasting can be summed up in two words: Silvio Berlusconi. In Reality, Neapolitan fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) becomes obsessed with the TV show Big Brother. The process is gradual, like a virus infecting its host. Luciano has nice kids and a loving wife (Loredana Simioli); his working-class family lives in a crumbling old apartment complex surrounded by various colorful cousins. Really, he has nothing to complain about. Life is good . . . until that virus infects his brain.
Director Matteo Garrone broke into world cinema with his 2008 adaptation of the true-crime tale Gomorrah, also set around Naples. That film was a transfixing fresco of heady images and primal violence. Sleek mob killers operated by medieval codes of vengeance and loyalty. It was both ancient and modern. Reality is also thus divided. Luciano plies an honorable, traditional trade, but he and his wife are also dabbling in a computer-age scam, taking kickbacks on what they call “robots,” an unreliable all-in-one kitchen appliance. Their apartment is from the 19th century; but inside they’re enthralled by the lurid modern hook-ups of Grande Fratello on TV. Luciano’s kids beg him to audition for the show, he does, then delusion sets in. If he gets on reality TV, he reasons, “We’re set for life. All our problems are solved!”
Are the talent scouts secretly monitoring him? Luciano is a natural performer, introduced doing a drag act at a lavish fantasia wedding in a rental palace. Before, he could go home and wash off the makeup. But now he succumbs to the agony of constant media self-consciousness, trapped in performance mode. He makes extravagant gestures, gives the family’s furniture away to the poor. Patrons at his fish stall or random passersby prompt paranoid speculation. Are they actually TV executives? Acting becomes his permanent new reality. In one of the film’s most comic and bizarre moments, Luciano engages in a staring contest with a cricket, like it’s a hidden camera watching him. Watching him. Watching him with those tiny antennae.
Reality may be a bit too weird and uneven for American tastes. It’s rich with native textures that defy translation. (Could we explain Honey Boo Boo to Italians?) The TV love-hate dynamic is far stronger in Italy, where the Internet is weak. But the remarkable Arena—a convicted killer allowed to leave prison to act in this movie—gives humanity to Luciano’s improbable quest toward a garish, televised Oz. His triumph is to become intimate with all that Reality despises, and somehow we share in his victory.