Matteo Garrone follows up the visually compelling, structurally scattered Gomorrah with a more contained treatise on surveillance as transcendence and entertainment. Opening with an incredible god’s-eye view of a hazy, lazy Naples, which the camera slowly moves across until it finally peers down on an incongruous sight: a gold-encrusted, horse-drawn carriage clopping along the congested city streets (a nod to Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach?). Extended, vertiginously choreographed tracking shots—employing Steadicam and bravura crane shots alike—define Garrone’s visual style on this one. Servants in 18th-century livery open massive wrought-iron gates for the carriage at its destination, a wonderland wedding hosted by recent Big Brother winner Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a reptilian smooth operator whose insipid mantra, “Never give up!,” will inspire some truly unintended consequences when Neapolitian fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) adopts it a trifle too literally.
Introduced at the wedding sporting drag-queen attire and a blue fright wig, Luciano also defines himself as a performer, only one lacking an audience. He seems mesmerized by Enzo, as though he can’t quite reconcile the presence in his real life of a figure so often glimpsed at on television. In Orwell’s 1984, television functioned as both transmitter and receiver, a kind of two-way mirror between observer and observed, and could never be switched off upon pain of punishment. What Orwell never realized was that actively promoting that link as a two-way street, taking ordinary citizens and putting them on that screen, would effectively relieve the citizenry of the very desire to shut the thing down. Welcome to Big Brother.
Luciano’s family encourages him to audition for the new season of the show, and the prospect of eventual fame and fortune, as well as the tension brought on by waiting for his “invitation” to the House, triggers an adverse reaction in Luciano, goading him on to increasingly erratic and irrational behavior. When his assistant, Michele (Nando Paone), suggests that God, too, is heavy into surveillance, Luciano embarks on misguided acts of charity like giving away most of his family’s belongings to the neighborhood’s homeless outcasts. Ostensibly a comedy, Reality abounds in moments of darkly ironic humor like a scene in which a cricket (by Jiminy!) invades the household, forcing Luciano to flee its multifaceted gaze, the purest example of the film’s understated absurdism.
Garrone ends the film on a wonderfully ambiguous note: Travelling to Rome under the guise of attending a religious candlelight vigil (shown as a dazzling crane shot from behind the pope, out over the crowd, with the Coliseum standing watch in the background), Luciano instead sneaks away to invade the Big Brother house, staring through the two-way mirrors at its occupants as though they were deep-sea creatures in an aquarium. The final shot ascends back into the heavens, closing the circle and yet concluding nothing, accompanied by the sound of quiet, demented laughter.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.