Top-tier helmer Matteo Garrone proved his talent for slice-of-life realism and visual confidence even before “Gomorrah,” but he’s never been dull until “Reality.” This comes as a surprise due to not only Garrone’s track record, but also the material he’s tackling, about a Neapolitan fish seller who turns delusional over “Big Brother.” Reality-TV addiction is overripe for satire, yet the script here swerves from anything biting, opting for an affectionate look at a family and the rabbit hole this father of three jumps into on his mad quest for celebrity. International sales are likely, though reception will be fuzzy.
The start is more than promising: A helicopter shot presents an aerial view of Naples, zeroing in on a kitschy “royal carriage” transporting newlyweds to a wedding palace that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jersey Shore. Inside, boisterous wedding parties are entertained by Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former “Big Brother” contestant making a living by promoting his 15 minutes of fame. Having a celebrity in their midst makes the wedding guests go wild, including Luciano (Aniello Arena), the family cut-up who loves to perform.
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When the party is over and Luciano and his family head home to their apartments in a crumbling old building typical of Naples, there’s a palpable disconnect between the phony glare of the marriage factory and the run-down darkness of their working-class digs. Garrone, perhaps wisely, remains on the fence in presenting the questionable taste of his characters, showing without ridiculing. But although “Reality” avoids patronizing these people, it also avoids offering any serious comment on their adulation of fame.
Luciano’s kids press him into auditioning for “Big Brother,” which he wangles into with his usual swindler-like bonhomie. Following first-call auditions in Rome, he’s certain he’ll be selected, returning to Naples a mini-celebrity on the cusp of fame. Delusional behavior sets in as he imagines every stranger is an undercover scout vetting his suitability for the show. Some may actually be financial police investigating an illegal mail-order scheme he runs, yet Luciano’s foremost concern is that he prove himself worthy of “Big Brother.”
This increasing obsession distresses his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), though most of the family encourage his folly, which extends to mad acts of charity he performs under the belief that he’s being tested for his worthiness. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go much beyond this, apart from belaboring Luciano’s increasing inability to think of anything other than “Big Brother.” The script is far too stretched out, and several scenes, including one in a disco and another in front of Rome’s Colosseum during Good Friday prayers, add little or nothing to the proceedings.
Enzo’s character, with his hollow motto “Never give up your dreams,” is obviously meant to show up the vapidity of reality-show fame, yet Garrone shines only a very dim flashlight on the emptiness of celebrity culture. Perhaps the helmer’s fondness for his characters prevented him from bringing out the knives: There’s nothing to chew on here, no commentary to set auds pondering the way reality skeins have changed perceptions of what’s real. Fourteen years after “The Truman Show,” viewers — especially the foreign-film crowd — will expect a genuine engagement with the phenomenon rather than gentle ribbing.
Technically, the pic can’t be faulted, beginning with the perfs. Stage thesp Arena makes a notable screen debut, projecting the spark of maddened wonder as Luciano is sucked into a complete fantasy land, even though his plunge into craziness happens too quickly. Most notable in the cast is Simioli as the wife who becomes a perplexed bystander to his delusion. Her helplessness provides one of the only real notes of emotional interest.
Marco Onorato’s liquid lensing is pleasing and impressive, though the camera’s constant tracking of the characters suggests revelations that never come. The visual concept deliberately channels (if never fully develops) fairy-tale notions that are meant to speak to the unreality of “Big Brother” and its ilk, and composer Alexandre Desplat plays up this undercurrent with recurring tunes that would require more differentiation to hold interest.