The alternate reading of the Pandora’s box myth is that hope is the worst possible thing that could have been left in that container full of horrible things. Hope can keep people in stasis, merely hoping for something better rather than actively trying to make things better. This is usually the downfall of dreamers, no matter what the dream is. Ironically, people who are considered hopeless dreamers are sometimes the types of people full of too much hope.
This seems to be one way to consider Reality. As mentioned in our interview with Matteo Garrone yesterday, he consciously turned away from the hard drama and crime of his multi-story tapestry Gomorrah and instead wanted to focus on an intimate fable about a man who wants to be on the show Big Brother.
It’s a feeble dream, sure, but false hope magnifies things and makes them harmful.
Director: Matteo Garrone
Release Date: March 15, 2013 (limited)
From the beginning of Reality, we’re treated to artifice. From up in a helicopter, we swoop around Naples and then focus on an antiquated horse and buggy trotting along the road as cars pass by. People in their houses below look up at the chopper, but the focus is solely on this carriage, which looks made for royalty. The carriage continues through a manned gate and enters to courtiers of some kind in period costume. Out come a bride and a groom, treated to a gaudy display of nuptial kitsch. Around them are other couples in a facility built for gaudy weddings, and the atmosphere is like a carnival or a theme park.
In this world of artificial wonder we meet Luciano (Aniello Arena), a fish merchant who wants to be on TV. He idolizes a former Big Brother winner named Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante). Enzo’s motto: “Never give up,” said with varying levels of enthusiasm but very little sincerity. Luciano and his wife don’t make much money, so they concoct some bizarre scheme involving helper robots leased to other people in town. I’m still not sure how it works, but the robots are about the size of an end table and look part juicer and part mixer (and I want one). Over the course of the film, Luciano loses his way in life in his quest to be a part of the program, holding out hope that the producers really are intent on casting him.
From the outset Garrone establishes this feeling of a fairy tale and non-reality, as if walking through an opulent dream. That is a good way to get into a story about reality television since that is a kind of unreal thing in itself. Even though he mentioned in our interview that reality television is a MacGuffin, it does make sense that celebrity through reality television is the focus. It’s the ultimate enfeebled dream of 21st capitalism. Luciano watches Big Brother incessantly, and none of the participants are extraordinarily good at anything. They simply are, and yet something about being on TV validates existence, as if they are more than simply themselves.
Garrone plays a bit with something I’ve always wondered about reality television: how do people act when they know they’re being watched? It’s like the observer effect in quantum mechanics: particles will act differently when they are observed. People will also act differently when they’re in front of a camera, which makes reality television an imperfect form of reality. (It’s also a complication of legit documentary filmmaking. As verite as the style is, the mere presence of a third-party means a change in behavior.) After trying out for Big Brother, Luciano is convinced that the show’s producers are sending people to spy on his behavior. It causes him to become suddenly charitable to a fault, putting a strain on his family and marriage.
A lot of what makes Reality work is Arena’s performance. In real life Arena was a hitman sentenced to life for killing members of a rival gang. He discovered theater acting in prison, which is where Garrone first saw his work.In his screen debut in Reality, Arena shows a remarkable natural talent. Garrone mentioned that he acts through his eyes, and that may be the best way of putting it. Arena has such an open face, and you can read his thought process in a simple stare. All the madness, contentment, frustration, and sadness of Luciano can be communicated without words, making the character more real than the fake people on reality TV.
Yet while Arena is remarkable in his screen debut, there is a sort of thinness to Reality‘s story. Garrone’s focus is as one-tracked as Luciano’s: his character wants to get on Big Brother, Garrone follows the story along. There are no shifts in trajectory or sudden changes in the nature of satire and observation, and I think I was expecting more to come from the film even though it ends pretty perfectly. Reality is kind of like a pattern story in a way, in which behavior follows a logical chain. Generally the best pattern stories will break the pattern or reveal a secondary pattern that was subtly/imperceptibly being established throughout, but again, there’s just one track for Reality to take, and it takes it to the end of the line.
Part of this one-note nature may have been due to Garrone’s desire to avoid full-on denunciation of reality television and the empty dreams that society tells people they should want. But even in trying to avoid that kind of harsh denunciation, it exists in the film. It calls out to be punctuated. While Reality is Luciano’s story, he’s an everyman whose foibles are familiar, and an everyman story is a story about a person in society. Again, an in-between: not only is it a film trying to avoid the unavoidable denunciation of reality TV, it’s also a character study that is also a larger examination of a society’s dreams. Perhaps a more critical lens could have been turned toward the forces that create these empty, unreal desires.
And yet there’s still something potent in the film even if it goes unexpressed. I think it’s there in Arena’s eyes as he considered the comforting glow of the television or the possibility of reward from good deeds. In his face is the machinery of hope, even if it is false, and in his actions are the folly of bad aspirations. The moral is right there and it’s good, but the moral was already apparent going in.