Italian director Matteo Garrone made waves at American art houses with the unsettling mob drama “Gomorrah,” which not only unearthed details about his country’s powerful criminal organizations but rendered them in cold, brutal terms that imbued the movie with extreme claustrophobia. His follow-up, the Cannes-winning “Reality,” takes aim at a different target with a similarly dour gaze. The movie, which opened in limited release last month but expands to several cities today, follows the experiences of Neapolitan fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) as he grows increasingly obsessed with landing a role on “Big Brother” to the point where he may or may not be losing his mind.
While Garrone views his character in sympathetic terms and renders his blue collar status with many of the grimy, decisively unromantic traits previously found in the filmmaker’s work, “Reality” also takes marvelously satiric jabs at the impact of contemporary media on the everyman, particularly in Italy. A far stranger, more alarmingly offbeat work than “Gomorrah,” the new movie invites a dialogue on the pratfalls of reality television. At the Toronto International Film Festival last September, Garrone sat down with Indiewire ahead of the film’s North American premiere to discuss its key themes.“Reality” is currently in limited release and expands nationwide on Friday.
“Reality” operates on several levels. On the one hand, the jittery camerawork and intimate perspective of lower class existence place it in the tradition of neo-realism. On the other, it’s an outright satire that departs from that tradition entirely. How did you formulate the approach you wanted to take?
My reference in this case was more than neo-realism — that was probably more connected with “Gomorrah,” which was inspired by Rosselini. In this case it’s more inspired by Edwardo De Filippo or Visconti’s “Bellissimi”… I wanted this movie to [take a stance against] TV, but it’s a sort of fairy tale in a way. It’s a journey around my country today, and in that way it does have realism. Everything can be real but it’s also like a dream — it was very, very difficult to find a balance between these two elements, the realism and the dimension of the fairy tale.
To me, the opening shot felt like the establishment of a fairy tale and because the camera comes down to Earth from high above — from the dream to reality — and then it lifts up again in the closing shot, reestablishing the dream.
That’s the fairy tale ending. There are a lot of movies that have the similar theme. “The Truman Show” does, in a way, but “Reality” starts from a true story. I started to work on this project because I wanted to do something different from before, to change directions. Two or three years had passed since “Gomorrah” and I was starting to feel the pressure to make something bigger, bigger, bigger — and I wanted to start with a small story, but then the movie became bigger out of this small story.
What are your personal feelings about “Big Brother”?
What I think is important for people to know is just that there is a sort of polemic that you can get from these shows, the idea to escape from your reality — it’s contagious. Maybe it starts from the neighbor, then your family and then it gets you to lose your connection with reality and lose your identity.
Do you watch much TV yourself? Can you relate to this character?
I can relate with this character, with a certain dimension of him. I said at times that this story is sort of the modern “Pinocchio.” I can relate with the temptation of a society of consumers. The idea that can be related with the temptation of this artificial paradise is one we have in every field. I have that temptation in my work, so the theme is close to me. I hope it’s universal.
Have you seen Erik Gandini’s documentary “Videocracy,” which explores how media celebrity obsession in Italy consumes the lives of its people? It seems like the ideal companion piece to “Reality.”
Yeah, I met with [Gandini] when I was working on a project related to the paparazzo Fabrizio Corona [otherwise known as Italy’s “King of Paparazzi”]. I wanted to make a fiction film about his life kind of like “La Dolce Vita,” but with television, because television at the time of “La Dolce Vita” was not so interesting, and nobody knew about paparazzi. So the story that Fellini took was unknown. Now, stories about paparazzo are already in a way movies because the television tells about them with the real characters. It’s tricky, very dangerous, because it became an imitation of something the audience has already seen in television. As a director, I have to find a way to surprise the audience, and it can be very dangerous to use characters that you can easily recognize. So I quit and I started with another guy who was completely unknown, and that was the story of Luciano in “Reality.” The connection with “Videocracy” is correct.
Do you think that some of the issues with the way that media affects people in Italy will change now that Silvio Berlusconi is no longer in power?
Things have really been changing since 1975. This is connected with the idea that we are here to sell celebrity, as if it were the lottery. If you want the people to buy a ticket, they have to believe that someone, a normal person, can win a lot of money. It’s important to give this chance so that everybody can buy the ticket. I’m not judging. If you are nice, people laugh when you talk, why don’t you try it? In the beginning Luciano tries, and it seems normal. But then it starts to work on his mind.
Did you see Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love”? One of the subplots, which involves Roberto Benigni, is very similar to the situation in “Reality.”
I haven’t seen it. The theme is not original. I’ve always had difficulty in the past when I was working on this project — friends ask me, “What are you doing now?” and I start with this story. I think they were always disappointed because it could have been very bad. It’s not the story; it’s how you tell it. There is also a movie I saw in competition in Venice where I was on the jury. It was called “Superstar.” We didn’t like it very much but the theme was also a guy who became famous — a normal guy — but in this case it didn’t work.
Italy isn’t the only country assailed by reality television, of course. I’m sure you’re familiar with “Jersey Shore.”
But I think if you see the movie as just connected to the program that’s in it, you can be bored easily. However, if you get connected to the metaphysical idea that is behind it, you won’t get bored. When we worked on this project it was more connected to the desire to escape from your reality. Dreams are like an insect that gets stuck in honey. I think in the future we will have another kind of honey.