By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 18, 2012 at 7:45AM
"Reality" makes the case that society renders everyone impossibly small. The first and last shots of Matteo Garrone's drama take place from extreme heights that make their focal point blend with their surroundings. Everything in frame takes on the dimensions of a dollhouse, as if the Italian filmmaker has assumed a godlike awareness. The compositions suggest that people are inherently trapped by their surroundings and never fully capable of realizing it.
Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a Neopolitan fishmonger intent on landing a role on "Big Brother." Initially, he endures a low-key existence with his wife (Loredana Simioli) and young children, enthusiastically hawking fish from his tiny stand and running cheap scams for extra money on the side. Driven by some intangible combination of ego and alpha-male aggression, he strives to impress his family at every turn. When his daughters come across "Big Brother" auditions at the local mall and beg him to take a stab at it, he barrels straight ahead. After harassing the jaded host Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former contestant, Luciano gets a fleeting chance to address the cameras.
From that moment, Luciano's perception of his opportunities start to shift and the movie's perspective moves with him. Increasingly obsessed with the possibilities of gaining fame and lifelong security for himself and his family, Luciano's type-A personality kicks in as he embraces the enthusiasm of his tiny community and lets it get to his head -- quite literally.
Whereas Garrone's previous movie, the acclaimed crime opus "Gomorrah," took a relentlessly bleak view of its corrupt setting, "Reality" cleverly indulges in the myth it criticizes. In several key moments, Luciano grows so enthusiastic about the possibility of landing on "Big Brother" that it's impossible not to get excited along with him. Then Garrone, ultimately a realist, pulls out the rug from under us and his protagonist at once -- most devastatingly when Luciano's brother (Nello Iorio) pranks Luciano into temporarily believing he got the gig.
Of course, "Big Brother" and other trapped-in-a-house reality programs already take on Orwellian ramifications, but "Reality" takes it one step further: The movie shifts from a plucky tale of blue-collar misadventures to a media-fueled horror show. As Luciano grows convinced that the program has invaded his life, his enthusiasm devolves into paranoia and he begins to believe, as his wife puts it, "the TV is watching him."
Garrone's patient approach lets this idea permeate Luciano's life through a progression that can feel, particularly in its middle sections, somewhat directionless. However, the very same ambiguity about the movie's intentions underscore Luciano's instability. An ebullient, Disneyesque soundtrack by the great Alexandre Desplat ("Moonrise Kingdom," "The Tree of Life") contributes to an illusory sense of uplift that runs counter to the events actually taking place -- or how they appear to take place.
"Reality" may, in fact, put an end to the idea of Garrone as a traditional neorealist; his naturalism is intentionally misleading right up until the simultaneously haunting and wondrous finale. Critics were comparing it to Martin Scorsese's showbiz satire "King of Comedy" almost immediately after the first screening at Cannes, an apt reference point since both movies deal not with the pratfalls of fame but its impact on those obsessed with achieving it for the wrong reasons.
The reality-show aesthetic pervades the movie as well. Garrone's roaming camera style draws you into each moment with extreme close-ups and long takes that wander through each scene and get lost in it. Luciano's plight is crushing because Garrone renders it with such detail. To a certain degree, "Reality" is actually a reality show with greater resonance than "Big Brother."
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although not bound for major commercial success, "Reality" should continue to play well along the festival circuit and land a midsized U.S. release where it could garner strong reactions in major cities in addition to VOD (akin to the popularity that greeted "Gomorroah").