Today in unexpected Cannes headline news: A convicted felon turns in one of the best performances at the festival thus far (and it's not Roman Polanski — rimshot! — who was the subject of a softball vanity documentary that screened here earlier in the week, and isn't really worth talking about).

After a very well-received screening of Reality — in which Luciano (Aniello Arena), a fishmonger in contemporary Naples, auditions for the Italian version of Big Brother on a whim, and then becomes increasingly obsessed with the show and all it represents as he waits to hear back about being cast — director Matteo Garrone (last seen at Cannes with the 2008 mafia epic Gomorrah) confirmed that Arena couldn't attend the festival … because he's in prison. Garrone apparently tried to cast Arena, who has been part of a prison theater company for much of his two decades behind bars, in Gomorrah, but couldn't get the convict's temporary release approved for that bloody crime film. There is no violence in Reality — which begins in the key of Capra and then becomes darker and stranger as its protagonist drifts further and further away from, ahem, “reality” — but it would be hard not to read the film as an indictment of contemporary Italy.

As much as reality TV is a universal scourge, Garrone's film feels quite specific to the role it plays in Italian culture. Reality could be thought of as a fictional counterpart to Videocracy, Erik Gandini's impressionistic 2009 documentary tracing the toxic side effects of the media monopoly held by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who became the most powerful man in the land by building an empire based largely on exploitative game shows. Gandini's film argues that by putting the televised spectacle of “reality” at the center of not just pop culture but also the political and economic spheres, Berlusconi is responsible for recalibrating the nation's values, turning reality TV stardom into the nation's most in-demand “career.”

A fixture of his village and large family sprawled across a charming, crumbly structure at the head of the town square, Luciano is dragged away from work (well, from his side gig orchestrating the black-market trade of kitchen “robots”) by a pleading call from his young daughters, demanding he come down to the mall and try out for Big Brother. Luciano finagles his way into the audition by appealing to Enzo, a former contestant whom Luciano met when Enzo was the flown-in-by-helicopter hired talent at a family wedding — thus usurping Luciano's own apparently long-held gig as the family's after-dinner drag act.

Then Luciano gets a call-back, which involves a psychiatric evaluation. It goes well, or so Luciano thinks (“They were, like, 'Stop, that's enough,” he brags to his family), and he goes back to Napoli certain he's won a place on the show, a conviction only strengthened when strangers start visiting the fish market — Luciano can only assume they're spies sent “from the TV” to determine that he truly deserves a slot in the Big Brother house.

But days and weeks pass, and Big Brother doesn't call. The more they ignore him, the more obsessed Luciano gets, repeatedly insisting the show could “solve all our problems,” and his anxiety leads to increasingly self-destructive behavior. Finally his friends and family try to intervene in what his wife diagnoses as “Big Brother Shock.” Ultimately, Luciano makes an illicit pilgrimage to the set of the show, leading to a beautiful daze of a final sequence: He wanders seemingly unnoticed through this framing device for televised iniquity, which, with its blown-out lighting framing the beatific Luciano with cloudlike puffs of light, has the aesthetics of heaven.

The film is most interesting when subtly probing the conflicts between traditional values and hyper-techno-modernism, as well as between sacred and profane. The village fishmonger/light racketeer whose only ambition is to become a reality TV idol is the epitome of the ultimately untenable butting-up of old and new worlds.

The film's overall vibe feels a bit dated, but that won't matter on a long enough timeline. If the syndrome of “Big Brother Shock” was the social disease of the Berlusconi era — an era that technically ended in November when he stepped down as PM — then you could say the disease itself began to enter remission just last month, when Berlusconi's Mediaset entity, which acquired a one-third stake in Big Brother production company Endemol in 2007, sold off its remaining interest. As a satirical portrait of that era and that disease, Reality's real subversion is in preserving a moment of madness for future generations.

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