Italy France (115 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Matteo Garrone
Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television.
—Rain (Juliette Lewis) from Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992)
Without a doubt, this is a film with sensational camerawork throughout by Marco Onorato adding a degree of power and complexity missing from the rest of the film that often feels slight and overly superficial, where an extended opening aerial shot draws us into a surrealist fantasy aspect of the film, reminiscent of a Disney fairy tale wedding where the newlyweds arrive in a horse drawn carriage to festivities that appear right out of a Fellini film, where fat, old, and grotesquely ugly characters fit right in with the colorful artificiality of the moment, giving it a garish, carnivalesque atmosphere where the guests are ogling over a Reality TV star named Enzo (Rafaele Ferranti), whose appearance seems to inspire a special delight. Flying in and out on a helicopter surrounded by a throng of photographers, one of the local Dads, Luciano (Ariello Arena), hoisting his young daughter on his arm, asks for a celebrity autograph, mesmerized by all the attention Enzo gathers and how easily this impresses his young daughter, making up his mind right then and there to become a contestant on the Realty TV show Big Brother. While this may be a satirical attempt to expose the self destructive effects of reality television, it seems more interested in the superficialities of celebrity worship and the idea that something inside every one of us wants to be famous, worshipped, and adored by the public. While this thought alone is a delusion, as just as many intentionally avoid the spotlight, this plays out more as an internalized fantasy playing out in one man’s mind, where an all-consuming, get-rich-quick fantasy takes over his actual life, becoming so obsessed with the desire to be on the TV program that this sudden rush of interest replaces his own ordinary life, much like Star Wars or Star Trek fanatics live vicariously through movie characters, literally inhabiting a fantasy world.
Garrone wanted to use actor Ariello Arena as a hitman in his earlier neo realist crime drama GOMORRAH (2008), as he is actually sentenced to a life sentence without parole in Volterra prison for shooting three rival gangsters in 1991, but the prison parole board felt the part was too close to his actual crime. He was allowed day passes to work on this film, however, delving into a self-imposed manic fantasia that may be easier to channel by spending large amounts of time locked up, isolated from the rest of society. Arena plays Luciano as a typical ordinary guy with a special exuberance and child-like wonder, an everyman who lives for his family and friends, a popular man in the community where he works in the local street markets selling fish with his partner Michele (Nando Paone), but often socializes with others who work nearby, including Ciro Petrone, a young coffee server who played one of the teenage gangsters in GOMORRAH. Together with his wife Maria (Loredana Simioli) they run a neighborhood scam on unsuspecting housewives selling them products they eventually reclaim. Living in an old, dilapidated section of Naples with plenty of family nearby, he’s the object of continual affection with the older women constantly doting on him, always laughing at his bad jokes, where he often performs skits for family entertainment at birthday parties, becoming something of a familiar clown. When Big Brother tryouts arrive in Naples, Luciano is interviewed, still toting his kids around with him wherever he goes, as if this TV program offers him some status of legitimacy that he wouldn’t otherwise have. He’s even called for a second interview in Rome's Cinecittà Studios, becoming the talk of the town, where it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a contestant.
Unlike the ultra realism of his earlier film, Garrone chooses to embellish this film with wild Italian stereotypes and exaggerated, over-the-top characters often seen yelling back and forth at each other, where there isn’t an ounce of subtlety here, as everything is expressed through a brightly colored world of artifice, where gestures and mannerisms are as prevalent as gossip and rumors. When he learns that TV sends out observers, where anyone he sees could be a spy for the show, this immediately exacerbates his growing sense of paranoia, where every stranger’s face suddenly works for the station and is watching him, becoming a personal test. He becomes so confident of his winning personality, however, that he even sells his fish stand, making way for his all but inevitable appearance. When the new season starts without him, though, he slowly disappears from public view, becoming isolated and anti-social, withdrawing from the neighborhood, spending every waking hour watching the show, wondering how to impress the judges and what test he must pass to be chosen, like modifying one’s behavior to get into Heaven. When he starts giving away all their personal belongings in an absurdist Christian gesture of contributing to the poor, he grows further out of control and unreachable, so alienated from his wife that she goes to live with her mother. While there is a strong sense of local community and neighborhood support that is ultimately rejected, the film is a study of delusion and broken dreams, where fantasy takes the place of reality. There is at least the suggestion that television may be the new religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” where it offers a soulless moral reflection of the vast emptiness of modern society. Guided by unhealthy notions of consumerist popularity and commercial success, Reality TV exists almost without purpose, which is itself a kind of alternate reality, as who needs to watch the empty, unfocused lives of others? This film makes no attempts to offer any cultural significance to the medium, delving instead into the psychological void that exists within.