Here is what Matteo Garrone’s “Reality” is NOT: Yet another dull study of reality television, only this time set in Italy. No, “Reality” is something far more fresh, and infinitely more incisive. It is a film about reality culture from the outside looking in, and it is one of the most involving, moving, darkly funny films I’ve seen all year. (It’s a 3/12- or 4-star movie for me.)
When “Reality” premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, it garnered a respectful, if subdued reaction from critics. But the jury, led by Nanni Moretti, awarded the film the Grand Prix, essentially the runner-up to the Palme d’Or (Haneke’s mighty “Amour”).
This was, remember, the year that saw Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” shut out. I would have ranked “Motors” above “Reality,” but after finally seeing Garrone’s film, I can certainly understand its allure for the jurors.
Still, not all were satisfied, including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw:
“Matteo Garrone’s ‘Reality’ won the Grand Prix, which really had me scratching my head. This is an amiable, but essentially sentimental and predictable satire about an ordinary guy from Naples who becomes obsessed with getting on to the Italian version of ‘Big Brother’ and becoming a big star. This film wasn’t anywhere near as good as his earlier ‘Gomorrah’: a more defensible choice, it seems to me, would have been for the jury to have given ‘Reality’ the best actor prize, for its lead, Aniello Arena, who gave a very good performance. However, as Arena is in fact a convicted criminal who is serving 20 years in prison — he was allowed out on day-release to shoot the picture, but not permitted to come to the festival – this might have created some diplomatic problems.”
Bradshaw’s point is legitimate — perhaps best actor would have made more sense, so believable is Arena. (The actor’s backstory, as indicated by Bradshaw, is almost unbelievable, yet true.)
I cannot disagree that the Grand Prix was a surprise, but, then again, Garrone said the same: “It’s a surprise. This award is more important than what I could have imagined before the ceremony. This Grand Prix will help the film to find a bigger audience.”
Oscilloscope picked up “Reality” for American distribution, and I’m thrilled they did. (It is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 13.) It is a subtle film, one that starts with a flourish — a stunningly garish horse-driven coach rides through Italy in one long shot — and utter confusion. But slowly, its story, of a good-natured fishmonger obsessed with the idea of appearing on “Big Brother,” comes into focus.
Various scenes here are as memorable as any in recent cinema, specifically a gorgeous sequence in which a previous “Big Brother” star, the beloved Enzo, flies above a club crowd, just out of reach. Arena’s Luciano watches him with wonder.
On paper, “Reality” is not dissimilar to films like “The King of Comedy,” yet it has a humanity, and a level of emotion, all its own. Bret Easton Ellis may have Tweeted it best: “Matteo Garrone’s ‘Reality’ is the funniest and most visually stunning film I’ve seen so far in 2013. A problem movie but also ravishing …” (The “American Psycho” author included it on his recent list of 2013 faves, along with Best of 2013 so far: “Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Room 237,” “Like Someone In Love,” and “56 Up.”)
Garrone’s previous film, “Gomorrah,” was a somber blast of 21st-century gangster cinema. I reviewed it for the Buffalo News on March 27, 2009; my 4-star review was headlined “Street life Two young toughs run afoul of the mob and pay the price.”
As you read this, Italian journalist Roberto Salviano is likely in hiding. Since the 2006 publication of nonfiction masterpiece “Gomorrah,” a passionate, cry-in-the-night about the corrosive Mafia-like Naples organization known as Camorra, Salviano has received death threats, resulting in armed guards, hiding and a well-deserved reputation as a national hero.
Matteo Garrone’s film of “Gomorrah” is Salviano’s revenge, a grim intertwining of mob middlemen, couriers, upstarts and victims. It’s the finest street-level crime drama since “City of God,” another saga of the violent and disenfranchised. Yet “Gomorrah” packs an even stronger punch.
There has never been an organized-crime epic quite like this, a masterpiece that takes to heart the hollow core behind “Scarface’s” prophecy of selfish consumption: “The world is yours.” This line has spawned a thousand cocky wannabes, kids who seem to forget that Tony Montana was shot down in a hail of gunfire — kids like Marco and Ciro.
Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) could be any age between 15 and 25, but mentally are a couple guys intent on shooting guns, robbing arcades for cash and playing too tough with strippers. The undynamic duo — who feature in the film’s most oddly affecting scene, shooting machine guns in a dingy lake in their underwear and sneakers — see Al Pacino’s Montana as their hero.
Yet, they evidence their youth by trying to steal from the all-powerful Camorra, and they pay the price. So does Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo, in the film’s best performance), a sweet-natured haute couture tailor who secretly brings his designs to a Chinese factory, under Camorra’s nose.
We also meet Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a young grocery delivery boy in a Beckham jersey, who is recruited by drug dealers. There is the aging Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a somber money-carrier. These are all sad, defeated people, and all are in Camorra’s web in one way or another.
Salviano and Garrone’s boldest step is in not only focusing on the guns and drug-running of organized crime, but also on its foothold in “legitimate” industries — fashion, shipping and waste management. How can an organization be brought down when its influence runs so deep? (The film’s ending tells us that Camorra is involved in funding the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.)
“Gomorrah” is not a gangster epic like “The Godfather” or, especially, “Scarface” — I hesitate to even recommend it to fans of “mob movies.” There is no one to root for, and no one can be called a lead character.
The cast is unknown on these shores. The settings are grungy, and the film quality is grainy. In its focus on the tense dreariness of criminal life, it could be called a very distant cousin of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (Scorsese himself is “presenting” the film to American audiences), but even this is misleading. There are no real laughs or nostalgic soundtrack, or even hints of happiness — some will likely find it boring and hard to follow.
But its strength lies in its complexities. The same is true of Salviano’s stunning book. How many of the goods we own have passed through the bloody Naples docks? It’s a good question — and an answer we’d rather not hear.
Salviano co-wrote the screenplay with Garrone, and I imagine its international success is a stunning victory for him, a sign that perhaps the world is beginning to pay attention to the world he put under the microscope. He has helped develop a new style of crime epic, one in which the admittedly intoxicating milieu of “Scarface” is bludgeoned back into reality.
As “Gomorrah” aptly demonstrates, the world is not yours. In Naples, at least, it’s theirs. Everyone else is just in the way.
Photo: Aniello Arena and Giuseppina Cervizzi in “REALITY.” Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.