It’s a curious condition of modern cinema that few films have addressed television’s role as the most powerful entity in our lives. How television has fundamentally remolded social systems and mores—the rapid emergence of gay rights, including marriage, has been profoundly fueled by television images from Will & Grace to Glee—is of enormous interest to a realist like Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, who has singlehandedly reformed notions of classic neorealism to a contemporary climate. While Gomorrah was Garrone’s full-range neorealist examination of Neopolitan crime syndicates, seen from a distanced perspective and told with an ensemble of characters, Reality is considerably more stylized and privatized, almost exclusively trained on one man who becomes obsessed with landing a slot on the new season of Big Brother.
There’s nothing more scripted than reality TV, and the very phrase is an aberration, one of the prime examples of modern media’s mangling of English. The fascinating idea at the core of the screenplay (co-written by Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso) is that an Everyman (Luciano, played with a gradually unfolding display of madness by Aniello Arena), who’s a nominally religious man but not devotedly Catholic, finds a kind of postmodern Communion with a television show as his new dogma. The previous year’s Big Brother winner, Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), now a superstar who gets transported from one event to another via helicopter, is a God-like figure for Luciano. In one stunning sequence, Enzo appears at a concert, hoisted overhead on cables and flying above the crowd, sending Luciano into paroxysms. Big Brother itself is a show about the television camera as an all-seeing entity, and the notion of submitting to its 24/7 surveillance amounts to a sacrifice, a giving over to something greater and omniscient.
Perhaps the truest American response to the impact of media on the individual remains Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s prophetic A Face in the Crowd, with its plotting of an arc of showbiz success (and monstrosity) as possible only in America. Reality provides a reading of TV that’s ingeniously Italian and Catholic. Garrone inserts scenes that consciously quote from early neorealism, such as Visconti’s Bellissima for a sequence in which Luciano’s family visits Cinecittà for Big Brother tryouts (while reversing the parent-child equation: here the child urges the parent to get into the show). Yet Garrone's interest here is much more theatrical and private. Luciano’s tilt toward obsession and madness occurs in invisible patches of time, until suddenly, his family is blindsided by the spectre that daddy has gone bonkers in his desire to get on the show, imagining regular local folk as “agents” and “watchers” for the show. At the same time, in an acidic display of Christian “sacrifice” and abandoning of material needs, Luciano gives away possessions to anyone off the street who wants them, much to the horror of his wife Maria (Loredana Simioli).
The realist issues within Reality then shift from media matters and Garrone’s interest in undermining cinematic reality (which he does from the mind-blowing opening airborne shot) to one man’s grasp on the difference between reality and delusion. That the show’s studio set happens to be physically close to the set-like Vatican underlines (to an obvious extent by the film's final stretch) the tie-ins between old-time religion and new electronic entertainment with its powers of seduction and pull toward an alternative life. If Luciano hasn’t quite found it in the end, he is right where he wanted to be.