Joshua Reviews Matteo Garrone’s Reality [Theatrical Review]

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Coming almost half a decade after his last, Criterion-approved gangster masterpiece Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone is back with a new film, this time of a decidedly different tone and mood.

In today’s pop culture landscape, very few things have become as polarizing and ultimately influential in entertainment as reality television. With its cast members often becoming some of the most powerful and wealthy stars in all of TV, the shows have become as close to event watches as any type of TV today. Toss in the rise of Twitter and other social networking, and reality TV appears to be here and without any intent of leaving.

And now it’s the focus of Garrone’s newest film, and it’s yet another great foreign release from this first half of 2013.

Reality finds Garrone weaving a tale (along with a bevy of screenwriters including Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci and Massimo Gaudiso) about a family man trying to get on his favorite show. Luciano is a sweet fishmonger who becomes obsessed with an Italian version of Big Brother, only to find his entire world changed by not only the show itself, but the idea that he’ll be involved with it after attending a casting call. A paranoid comedy of perceptions, Reality is a rather straightforward meditation of the deification of reality television and its stars, but it’s also a beautifully crafted and performed effort from an ever interesting cinematic voice.

The film stars first time actor Aniello Arena, and the strength of his performance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that are superb about this feature. He plays Luciano, our fisherman hero, and gives the role a sense of depth and truth far beyond his years. There is an energy and a fire to his obsession and while the film itself feels a bit dated, his performance has a life and raw power that it pushes the film forward until the final shot, possibly the best final sequence in all of 2013 film (at least up to this point). Surrounding him are the likes of Nunzia Schiano, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone and Nello Iorio, all of whom add experience to an otherwise raw gem of a film.

However, Garrone is this film’s big star. Getting gorgeously vibrant photography from Marco Onorato (also the man behind Gomorrah’s gorgeous cinematography), the film blends pop culture and pop art into a neon-fueled bit of fiery realism. Garrone’s camera feels inspired by Neo-realism, but instead of shining its light upon social and political issues like his past Italian brethren had, he brings his camera down into the streets of Naples and into the mind of a population who seemingly give sainthood to anyone they see on the small screen. Toss in a rather stunning score from Alexandre Desplat, and you have a welcome change of pace for a director who is becoming one of the crown cinematic jewels of a nation whose cinema is as vibrant as ever.

However, the film isn’t without flaw. While the aesthetic is inherently thrilling and vital, the core premise doesn’t enlighten as intensely. Inherently satirical, the film does feel slightly dated, if more so slight. Positing that modern popular culture has turned reality television into its own proto-religion, the film does have a lot to say, but not much that can’t be seen in various satires from around the globe. The craft behind the film ultimately elevates a lot of this into something far more entrancing, and the final sequence leaves the viewer at a loss for words, but for much of its runtime it feels as though it’s a song you’ve heard sung before.

Overall, Reality is a beautifully crafted meditation on society’s relationship with its media, and ultimately the obsession and even paranoia that can be a result of one’s love for reality TV. A tad slight, but packing a wallop of a final shot, Reality is a solid follow up to Garrone’s breathtaking debut feature. Driven by a lead performance that should spark one hell of a career for first time actor Aniello Arena, this film joins a rather surprising collection of foreign films that have made this first third of 2013 one of the best for foreign releases in quite some time.

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