Big Brother made a big impact on reality television when it began, but the response of filmmakers has been fairly sparse – only the Charlie Brooker-scripted Dead Set and the Christmas special to Extras has dealt with it in any interesting way. Now Matteo Garrone, whose previous film Gomorrah took a comprehensive and fascinating look at the underdogs of the Neapolitan crime world, has made a film about the ‘Big Brother effect’, in the process winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a fishmonger in Naples who lives modestly with his wife (Loredana Simioli) and kids. Always looking for a way to improve his situation, he is involved in a few petty scams, aided and abetted by his wife. Urged by his family to try out for Grande Fratello, the Italian Big Brother, because of his ability to entertain everyone around him, he auditions. However, during the selection process and the long periods of time waiting for the phone to ring, Luciano becomes obsessed with the bright future that is surely coming…
Opening with a fantastic aerial shot surveying Naples before zoning in on the carriage of some newly-weds on the way to their plush, over-the-top wedding reception, Garrone is playing from the beginning with fantasy and reality. The first few frames look gritty and urban but as the camera starts to follow the wedding carriage, there is a hint of airy extravagance. Anyone familiar with Fellini will recognise the sound of a breeze on the soundtrack, marking the passage from reality to fantasy. And then Alexandre Desplat’s score kicks in – quirky and ridiculous but somewhat recognisable.
The wedding is tacky and overdone with ribbons being cut and pigeons being released, a crowd of well-wishers bustling and shouting and taking awkward group photographs. However, as the wedding ends and the guests return to their homes, the film moves again into a more sombre, more realistic style in a nice touch suggesting that Garrone is in a more compassionate, humanist mood. The exterior of the apartment building looks stagy and brightly, cinematically lit, but when the camera enters each apartment, everything is a Lynchian green and mundane, even bleak. Public events, like a wedding, are opportunities for everyone to escape from reality, and as a performer it is here where Luciano excels, but in the end we all have to return to the everyday drudge. That Luciano, having caught a glimpse of fame and fortune, cannot settle back into his everyday routine is the main subject of Garrone’s film.
Luciano is an unusual character and the fact that he is likeable to entirely down to Arena’s fantastic performance and Garrone’s careful, sensitive handling of the film. It is very similar to Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, except for the key fact that Anna Magnani is obnoxious and irritating while Arena is thoroughly endearing and tragic. Luciano gives up his fish stand and more, all his long term prospects sold in pursuit of his five minutes. Garrone romanticizes Luciano’s hopes and dreams - Desplat’s brilliantly adaptable score recalling here the good times of Cinema Paradiso – managing so well that you end up hoping that Luciano gets the call even though you know that the show is awful and Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former Big Brother contestant, is clearly having a tough time of it. At one point, we see Enzo suspended ridiculously from a wire, swinging above the dance floor in a nightclub, something that might be approaching caricature if it were not so grimly plausible. Even though we know that Big Brother is not ideal for Luciano, we nonetheless wish him luck because he wants it so much.
Hence, a very funny prank midway through the film is, in a way, infuriating – every disappointment takes a toll and every silver lining rekindles one’s hopes. This is beautifully expanded into a comment on that ultimate ‘hope’, the afterlife, when Luciano mistakes two mourners for Big Brother scouts. Raised on Hollywood films, just like Luciano (one can imagine), we are unwilling to come to terms with the possibility of failure, again, just like Luciano. Ultimately, the film is about everyone’s hopes and dreams – the comment on today being the fact that our dreams are often as shallow as reality TV fame.
However, despite the somewhat garish colour scheme and the skewed perspective, Reality is a deeply compassionate film which does not laugh at Luciano, instead sympathizing with him, since his ambition is such a long-shot. Even Enzo (Luciano’s future) is a tragic figure, hurriedly visiting two weddings almost at once, always working and always surrounded but nonetheless he does seem to genuinely help Luciano, taking photos with Luciano’s daughter and helping him get an audition even though he is already late. And though the film takes a darker turn during the final act, it never judges or mocks, delivering an ending that is graceful, kind and note-perfect.
Reality seems like a typical satiric look at our obsession with celebrity and there are moments when it is – when one auditioning hopeful is asked why she wants to be on Big Brother, her reply, “to be rich and famous”, is rewarded for being a rare sincere answer. However, Reality proves to be unexpectedly likeable and kind-hearted, an insight into a man who becomes obsessed with celebrity (he is briefly, horrifyingly glimpsed in a DIY diary room) which aims for universal truths rather than easy targets. Against expectation, it makes you care.