Those who found Gomorrah embarrassingly overrated can relax. Despite a first half that’s basically a spin-off of the 2008 movie that brought Matteo Garrone international acclaim, Reality turns out to be its veritable refutation.
Reality begins in the same key as Gomorrah. The action is primarily descriptive—in this case, we’re situated within the scary outlying neighborhoods of Naples. The aesthetic is the same, an ultimately sterile mix of realism and stylization. Fresh performances by mostly nonprofessionals, and a camera eye that floats through and around the action as if it just happened to be there, meet the busy pictorial inventiveness that Garrone brings to his often kitschy settings. The world of the film is loud, gross, poor, primitive, excessive, all-too human, yet brutally worldly, a world fatter than life in the manner of, say, Carlos Reygadas.
Here we find Luciano, a fishmonger who, in his spare time, illegally sells defective household appliances to unwary housewives (who unfailingly return them to him hoping for a never-to-come refund). Luciano dreams of participating in a reality TV show—and his dream seems about to come true. Everyone in the film is caught in the vise-like grip of a faulty social order—an irreversible merger of micro-economy, family, religion, and media, producing an environment in which one must become a performer in order to stand out, as if reality television’s God’s-eye gaze were permanently watching you. So is Reality a well-intended sociological polemic (like Gomorrah) about the dangerous illusions disseminated by the media?
You have God to thank that it isn’t. In contrast to his approach in Gomorrah, Garrone here posits a way out of hell: madness. By the film’s midpoint, Luciano has become so obsessed with Big Brother (in Italy: Grande Fratello) that he comes to believe that everyone is a spy for the production. His pathological paranoia mirrors Catholicism at its purest, which transcends the unbearable pressure of God’s omniscience by rendering everyone and everything an incarnation of God. No longer “up there” looking down, God is made manifest in the here and now in “thy neighbor,” a neighbor one should love—and with whom Luciano becomes increasingly obsessed.
Effectively destabilizing the socioeconomic system by pushing the premise of its religion to an extreme, Luciano becomes the only character who’s truly free. Unlike those around him, who remain unknowingly subject to society’s gaze, he alone is aware of its omnipresence—even in lizards—and is thereby liberated. His is the holy madness of charity, seeing God everywhere and subverting a world reduced to a network of petty individual interests, in which everybody longs to be seen by the Big Eye. This improbable disruption is more than even Garrone himself can handle—from this point on he more or less gives up on his own movie. He has no idea whether to side with Luciano the madman or with his worried family hoping for a safe return to normalcy. (And whose normalcy are we talking about—Gomorrahland’s?) With no clear point of view, the film ends up losing its bearings completely and becomes increasingly confused as it progresses. Garrone’s sense of narrative structure is clumsier than ever, if usefully so: you never know where Catholicism as a subversive strategy ends and where its place as a cog in the Church’s machinery begins.
And no, this isn’t a film about Berlusconi’s Italy. It’s a film about Monti’s Italy— a country crushed by the immense and futile task of both appeasing the God’s-eye view of unregulated capitalism and desperately searching for a theological-socioeconomic escape route.