Working in the same rustic Neapolitan milieu he expertly depicted in 2008’s Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone seems to start Reality equipped with the necessary tools for some big, broad satire: a nation blinded by the ceaseless glare of celebrity; a colorful cast of expressive, animated natives; a leading man who, after years spent as a mob enforcer, is currently serving a life sentence for a crime colorfully known as “massacre.” Beyond these basics, the director also has a pretty ingenious metaphorical thrust, one which equates the fame-seeking hordes of aspiring reality TV contestants with religious devotees clamoring for eternal salvation.
Unfortunately, the whole thing never fully coheres. Garrone has a sure eye for outlandish set pieces that exhibit the expansive outlines of his ideas, but these spectacles are sporadic, and the spaces between them tend to lag. The film opens with one of these strong sequences, swooping in out of the clouds to follow the procession of a white horse-drawn carriage, which makes its way to a grand wedding celebration, where a middle-class family celebrates the nuptials with a Fellini-esque blowout. The cherry on top is the cameo appearance of a Big Brother star named Enzo, who helicopters in, makes identical toasts at several weddings being held at the same factory-style banquet hall complex, then ascends back into the heavens.
The main focus of Reality is Enzo’s earthbound equivalent, animated fishmonger and family clown Luciano (Aniello Arena, the aforementioned mobster), who flounces about the wedding in drag costume, desperately trying to work the celebrity guest into his act. Luciano is a familiar figure, the chronic jokester who excels at being the most entertaining guy in the room, the kind of character that’s a dime a dozen outside their immediate families. At the start of the film he hasn’t bought into his own hype, getting his fix from goofing off for relatives and gabbing with customers at his fish stand, until his children convince him to attend a Big Brother tryout at a local mall.
Here, as with the fantastic wedding and a great scene at a water park later on, Garrone demonstrates his facility with big crowd spectacles. In this one he pulls off a nice feat of inversion, using the sight of a mall full of wannabes to confirm to the audience that Luciano’s antics are nothing special. Meanwhile, the same sight has the opposite effect on our affable protagonist, impelling him to outdo his competitors, an impulse that deepens after he gets a callback for a second audition at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.
It’s in the long stretch after this second audition, where Luciano starts to believe that he’s being constantly monitored by the show’s producers, that the film gradually deflates. This should have been avoidable, since Garrone has established his protagonist’s noisy, bustling family as a potential generator for both humor and narrative development. Instead, only his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), ends up being memorable, her sinewy, exasperated ferocity clashing perfectly with Luciano’s distracted dreaminess. The rest of the relatives are relegated to the background, sketched as an undefined rabble of argumentative voices rather than specifically shaded characters or outlets for satire.
Garrone mirrors this missed opportunity by spending most of the film’s second half on autopilot, surrendering to an easy reality TV-aping aesthetic, with a handheld camera buzzing incessantly in Luciano’s face, probing for some feeling or reaction. Arena is a big actor and an outsized personality, which makes this crowding technique even more limiting and frustrating; it restricts the focus, a choice that’s probably intentional (indicating the increasingly blinkered focus of his life), but aesthetically numbing nonetheless. The transition from eye-of-God magnificence to fly-on-the-wall intimacy matches up with the exhausting ascent of Luciano’s paranoia, which culminates with him giving away all his possessions to the poor, cementing the connection between celebrity obsession and religious mania.
The eventual blatancy of this connection wouldn’t be an issue in a different context, especially since the level of humor Garrone is pushing doesn’t necessarily require subtlety. His tendency toward commedia dell’arte buffoonery might fit perfectly within a comedy that kept the loudness consistent, a style that would seem logical for a movie with a manic leading man and a cast of yammering grotesques. The problem is that this tone isn’t sustained. If Luciano’s loss of sanity had been presented with the farcical expansiveness and visual complexity that marks the film’s best scenes, instead of a sweltering collection of whip pans and face-hugging reaction shots, Reality would probably be a huge success. Instead it wavers between feverishly inspired absurdity and flaccid buildup, striking an inconsistent balance between brilliance and tedium.