Reality (2013): Garrone’s Follow-Up to Gomorrah, Starring Aniello Arena

Cannes Film Fest 2013 (In Competition)–There was a huge anticipation this year for the screening of Reality, a darkly humorous, often bold and provocative satire of the seductive power of the media in Italian culture.

The press screening (mind you, at 8:30am) was mobbed like no other showing of any title in competition. The reason: “Reality” is the follow-up to Italian director’s stunning feature debut, Gomorrah, made four years ago.

The movie, which divided American critics in Cannes and likely will divide viewers and critics when it is released theatrically in the U.S., in March 2013, won the Cannes Festival’s Special Jury Prize.

Gomorrah

The new work is in the vein of the popular “commedia all’Italiana” mode of frantic, often acerbic social comedies of the post-war Italian cinema, combined with the more polemical brand of documentary and satirical political exposes of the present.

 

Despite a visually arresting opening, defined by a bright color palette, the ensuing tale proved to be less than exhilarating, due to a rather repetitious narrative, slack second hour, and shifting, unceratin tone (the most crucial ingredient of satire as a genre).

Anchored by strong central performance from the brilliant actor Aniello Arena, the movie bears some thematic similarity to Scorsese’s 1983 “King of Comedy,” except it lacks that film’s blistering social critique that Scorsese and his frequent actor-collaborator Robert De Niro created in their serpentine and brittle film (which was a commercial flop, by the way).

The most interesting aspect of the production was disclosed following the official premiere at Cannes Fest, that Arena was given a temporary release from a 20-year prison sentence to play the part. Serving time for a reported murder, he is set to be released next year. That strange detail may account for Arena’s particularly sharp and complex performance, marked by deep awareness of solitude and entrapment.

The link to Scorsese and Coppola is made explicit by the movie’s flamboyant and baroque opening, executed by Garrone in a sinuous and unbroken take, largely hand-held, of a colorful and spectacularly over the top wedding that introduces Arena’s Neopolitan fish store owner and family. It soon become clear that the exuberant color and garish design are counterpart to the main character’s and his saga.

Given the clown name of Luciano, he’s got a classic look, a square, muscled body and open though hard lined face that is both suggestive and also furtive, even closed off. Even when he winces, you feel it. Enlisted as a drag queen to spoof the wedding solemnity, he finds himself in a slightly awkward exchange with Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a local celebrity, due to his involvement on the Italian edition of “Big Brother.” Luciano shows a playful and provocative side, making fun of his own masculinity, for instance, sufficiently indicative of a wit and ease of playing different roles. He’s the father of two adorably cherubic girls and slightly older son with his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli).

Read about Garrone’s new film: Dogman

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Garrone also draws some slovely moments from Luciano’s colorful and quarrelsome extended family. Working again with his great cinematographer Marco Onarato, Garrone is especially good, through his bold depiction of color, his off-center framing and exaggerated rhythms, at capturing the manic desperation of Napoli’ lower middle class.

The family’s socio-economic aspirations include their own brand of treachery and amoral behavior, evidenced by the local con involving a “robot kitchenette,” Luciana and Maria pull off against the unsuspecting locals in an effort to supplement their income and maintain a more comfortable existence.

Enzo, the local TV celebrity, has his own mantra, “Never give up.” Like Jerry Lewis’ talk show host in “The King of Comedy,” Enzo is the covetous and self-made star Luciano desperately hopes to duplicate. After Enzo helps Luciano secure an audition for the reality show at a local shopping mall, Luciano and his family are whisked to Rome’s legendary Cinecitta Studios for an audience with the show’s producers.

Having done an extended personal interview, Luciano returns home convinced his participation on the show is inevitable. Slowly, though his ambition gives way to startling obsession and finally to delusion. Back in Naples, Luciano reveals himself to be a man unchecked by any sense of balance or foresight, wholly consumed by pursuing his comic dream. He remains inventive and unabashed, illustrated by his final encounter with Enzo, when he finds a very novel way to interact with his personal idol at a garish nightclub.

Though Maria, friends and relatives are alarmed by his increasingly impulsive and self-defeating actions, like giving away most of the family’s possessions and selling the business, Luciano remains steadfast in the absoluteness of his private destiny. Garrone never condescends or ridicules his subject. Luciano’s brand of delusion is hard to dramatize, either emotionally or psychologically.

While the movie never fails to impress visually, like a majestic moment of one of the girls barreling down a waterslide, “Reality” becomes too repetitive in the second hour to give the material a jolt of energy and excitement that any satire needs to become poignant and provocative.

Fortunately, Garrone recovers from the film’s sluggish middle sections with a rousing and fascinating finale, though it leaves one with more questions than answers, which may be the director’s intent.

Though not always thrilling to watch, some images and ideas are bound to linger on in memory, as the ambitious Garrone aims to present not just the account of one particular individual, but also a portrait of the collective consciousness of the continuously changing Italian society.

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