A few years ago driving through crowded streets in Naples I was surprised to see something that made me feel I’d gone back in time; an ornate, black lacquered horse-drawn hearse. With that as my reference, when in the first scene of ‘Reality’ the helicopter shot lowered to the horse-drawn carriage on the Neapolitan street I thought, “wedding or funeral?” In the end, as celebration turned to suffering, it ended up being a pretty ironic question.
When Luciano, the family’s favorite cut-up, gets talked into trying out for an Italian reality show, he’s on board at first just to please his children, but it doesn’t take long to catch the celebrity bug. The transformation from loving husband and father to obsessed, TV star wannabe is quick but authentic.
Matteo Garrone’s Reality is a host of contradictions and a miracle of insight. There is warmth of a family that contradicts the unsympathetic world of reality television. There’s the sense of fun that’s eventually squashed by heartbreak and ruin. There’s a reason to be your best self, but to serve God or a TV audience?
And hold on, I can’t forget about the star of the show, Aniello Arena, who plays Luciano; it wouldn’t have been the same movie without him. Arena, who is serving a life sentence in prison and was only able to appear in ‘Reality’ through a work release program, may be the single biggest cinema surprise in years. Was he acting or is he really Luciano? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but he is perfect.
The ending is open to interpretation, but I see a glass half full and hold out a little hope for Luciano. Garrone’s Naples is the antithesis of the one he showed us in Gomorrah and it isn’t without community support, family ties, and love. It’s not a vapid wasteland. Luciano’s story is a tragedy only if we want it to be; and I don’t.