Garrone, who is best known for his award winning film Gomorrah about low-level organized crime in Naples, Italy, makes a comedy with an actor he found in a prison acting company in the lead role. The story is of a hard working man who owns a fish stand, struggling to keep his family afloat; all the while with a dream of being a contestant on the Italian version of Big House.
Luciano (played by Aniello Arena), who dresses in drag to make people laugh at weddings, has the show biz bug when he is not selling fish. And when he meets a famous winner of the Big House competition at a huge wedding, he begins to obsess about being on the show.
This is then when Luciano begins his downward spiral.
His family watches in shock as he thinks everyone is from the show scouting him out. When he tells a man begging for fish to get lost, he thinks it's someone from the show checking on him and immediately reverses his behavior.
He begins to freely give things away to people he thinks are from the show, and it just gets worse as his wife and friends watch him go off into a fantasy world.
“During the shooting, I was constantly striving for that delicate balance between dream and reality, always searching, even figuratively, for a certain fable-like quality, a sort of magic realism,” Garrone explained.
Luciano tells his wife that everything will be taken care of once he is on the show and thinks he will have no more problems when he is rich and famous; a dangerous idea for this man's psychological make up. He becomes child like in his fascination with the show.
The film explores the constant bombardment of TV shows on the public’s psyche and asked the question; what does it do to people’s minds when they spend hours in front of a TV set? In the worse case scenario we find Luciano.
It provides a warmer view of Naples than Gomorrah, his film about gangsters, and depicts regular people as Garrone casts actors that you normally wouldn’t see in a conventional film.
The director said that he saw this film as a cartoon, something that can be felt in the expressive faces of the actors.
Reality is excellent. I recommend it highly; and even though it is a comedy that can be dark at times, Arena’s child-like acting, corrupted by fantasy, truly makes it a classic.
Q and A with Matteo Garrone
I was able to interview Garrone in downtown Manhattan where he spoke about Reality, winner of the Grand Prix-Cannes film festival 2012.
You seem to cast people that you wouldn't usually see in film. Are you trying to make a comment on the conventional idea of beauty?
I was a painter. I like a face that is very expressive, and in some sort of anthropological aspect, I look for a face like a cartoon. This film Reality, for me, it was a picture more like a cartoon: very expressive. I like to choose a face that is not conventional. There are different types of beauty for me. The concept of beauty is very complex. I look always for beauty in my job.
Reality is a film about obsession of being on a TV show. What intrigues you about obsessive behavior?
It's something that comes up in my movies. I didn't know someone noticed it, but as you brought it to my attention, I don't know. I was not conscious of it. I am interested in the change of the body. As I said before, I was a painter, so it is very visual, my work. When we write the script, it is written as a silent movie for just the visual. There is the embalmer, one guy who was beautiful, a tall women and the fem fatal was a short man, all very different visually. In Gomorrah, the face and the body of the actors was very expressive.
Arena, who played the main character, gave a great performance in the film. You seem to work well together.
It's a long story with this relationship. The real actor, Aniello Arena, is in prison for life for killing someone when he was 20 in a gang in Naples. He had been in prison for 20 years, 13 years ago. He started to act in a theater company in prison. In this movie Reality, Aniello plays lead in the film, and is also the lead actor in a very well known acting company in a prison in Italy. The acting company is called La Fortezza. I used to go to plays of another acting company in a different prison that was featured in the Julius Caesar documentary. I already had the experience of casting a few actors from that prison acting company for Gomorrah, so I had the experience before. In the days he worked on the set, and at nights he went back to the prison.
How, as a director, did you get him to put on such a great performance?
We work like you would in the theater. I shoot in sequence, so the actor could follow the whole journey of the character. I give the actor a lot of freedom in his expression. We had a great time together, but of course, sometimes the police came to check if he was there.
Is he still in prison?
Yes. He is still the leading actor in the same acting company in jail, and now after 20 years, he has permission to go out for work.
Did you get the Reality character from a clinical case or a newspaper story?
This was a story of the brother of my wife in my family. He went to the hospital. He was in the hospital for one year and then he came back and participated in the project.
Which directors influenced you?
In the film Reality I would say (Federico) Fellini and (Vittorio) De Sica, and for Gomorrah I would say (Roberto) Rossellini. There are so many great Italian directors.