Reality, about an Italian fishmonger who wants to be on Big Brother, is the first great film about bad television.

Rampaging through the otherwise arid desertscape of contemporary Italian cinema, Matteo Garrone doesn't want for ambition or walnuts — he may be the premier chronicler of Berlusconi-era Italian culture, and its most muscular satirist. (That is, when Italian society isn't busy outpacing satire altogether.)

His follow-up to 2008's Gomorrah, Reality begins with a helicopter shot over Sant'Antonio Abate, a Renaissance horse carriage and a Fellini-esque yet assiduously realistic wedding party so grotesque and overwrought you feel the teeth marks of Garrone's irony-loaded title in every faux-aristo explosion of zeal and cartoon opulence. Is this real? Not for a moment, but it gets only more hyper-unreal when the nuptials, already crammed with frenzied disco gaiety and drag schtick, are visited by a beloved former cast member of Big Brother, whose presence electrifies the crowd. The family patriarch, Luciano (Aniello Arena), is bedazzled, watching the quasi-celeb be choppered away like a dignitary from another planet.

It's a world Luciano can't get out of his skull. Soon the hit Euro reality show is staging auditions in a Neapolitan mall, and to please his kids Luciano submits to an interview — despite being middle-aged and far from telegenic. His enthusiasm nets him subsequent auditions (which we don't see), and with just that much encouragement, his threadbare life selling fish and running pension scams begins to shred. Garrone's film explores nothing less than a mass delusion personified by this one eager schmuck, a savvy Everyman who descends into paranoid magical thinking, finally obliterating his family and his sanity in order, effectively, to cross over into the broadcast afterlife.

Garrone is in complete control of his thematic plutonium. Step by step, with a setup that evokes The Honeymooners, Reality builds to as scalding a vision of televisual simulacra and their maddened victims as Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Luciano mutates into the perfect television being — a man whose identity is defined by his blind devotion to the lie. It hardly matters that even in Italy Big Brother is a fading phenomenon; the metaphor it presents, of being “on the show” as inhabiting an idealized circle of Paradise, is dazzlingly rich.

It may be overstating things to detect a Dantean map beneath the drama, an idea that bruises when you find out that Arena, who's sensational in a demanding role, is in real life a prison convict with a life sentence, having shot the film on day passes and returning to his cell at night. What wouldn't this weathered, muscly, Hank Azaria–After-the-Fall hard-luck case do to step over the threshold himself, and live in a heavenly TV bubble? (Is it a coincidence that the Tavianis' contemporaneous Caesar Must Die also looked to Italy's mobster-filled prisons?) A prizewinner at Cannes, Garrone's film grows in your head afterward, making royal hash out of a cultural paradigm we'll be loath to remember years from now — if, by then, everything hasn't become “reality.” 

REALITY | Directed by Matteo Garrone | Written by Garrone, Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci and Massimo Gaudioso | Oscilloscope Pictures | Royal

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