by Angelo Muredda Reality, Matteo Garrone's follow-up to the urban planner's nightmare of Gomorrah, is a nasty little thing, at once an indictment of the mass delusion of celebrity culture and a finely-wrought character study of Luciano, a fish merchant and small-town Neapolitan crook who dreams of being a contestant on "Big Brother". Luciano is played with wide-eyed wonder and deep sincerity by Aniello Arena, a mafia hitman currently serving a life sentence for a triple-homicide--unlike his modest fictional counterpart, who's involved in a baffling scheme to resell pastry-making robots on the black market. It's a terrific performance, somehow sweet and deranged in equal measure, and it's the reason Reality works as well as it does when it begins to assume his warped perspective.
Luciano is content with minding his fish stand at first, provided he gets to do the odd tasteless skit in drag at a wedding, but he's goaded into auditioning for "Big Brother" by his grotesquerie of a family, a gallery of weeping children and abrasive cousins who think his life story, most of it criminal, will make him a shoo-in. His greatest enabler, though, is Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former contestant who's now a local hero, working for the show as a low-level Ryan Seacrest and signing off every exchange with a vapid "Never give up!" Enzo's mantra registers as an imperative for Luciano, who becomes convinced that he's being examined by a secret cabal of producers, despite hearing nothing from the show right up to the airdate.Garrone is working in a hybrid register here, his realist long takes invaded by the surrealism of what's actually happening onscreen; he gets a lot out of mileage out of the profoundly strange "Big Brother" set at Rome's famed Cinecittá studio, a compound with a phoney domestic interior surrounded by glowing plastic bubbles. Though the film is closer in tone to Scorsese's The King of Comedy, the inevitable comparisons to Fellini are apt enough, and certainly courted by the virtuoso opening: an overhead tracking shot of a bridal party's carnivalesque progression to the venue. Also like Fellini, Garrone's characterization tends towards outsized psychological types defined by their symbols--in this case the cricket that sits perched on a ledge above Luciano's TV set, its antennae a pair of divine bunny ears, endlessly receiving and in turn broadcasting signals to the Big Brother in the sky. Reality isn't subtle by any means, but as a satire of the virus of human-interest television, it's awfully funny.