Italian director Matteo Garrone garnered universal acclaim in 2009 for Gomorrah, his portrait of mob-ruled Naples, in which he treated the everyday illegality with all the bleak realism of a Ken Loach film.
Reality was probably the most difficult movie I’ve done
For his efforts, Garrone won the Grand Prix at Cannes, the film released in the US with accolades from no less a mafia movie aficionado than Scorsese, and the fans of world cinema waited to see what this unique and complex storyteller would do for an encore.
Few might have expected Garrone to follow it up with a dark spoof of the insidious culture of 'reality television', but Reality is no ordinary pop culture spoof. The story revolves around a family man's obsession with becoming a Big Brother housemate, but Garrone places more emphasis on the darker forces that drive his lead character Luciano's quest for fame and fortune. As Garrone explains over the phone on the eve of Reality's Australian release, the desires of his wannabe reality TV contestant aren't all that far removed from Gomorrah's scrappy teen mobsters.
At first glance, Reality might seem a dramatic departure for you after Gomorrah, but in some ways they are variations on a similar theme. Was that intentional?
It's true but honestly, I recognised that there are similarities only after I did the movie! I would say Gomorrah is about crime, but the point of view of the characters we tell is the point of view of the victim of this crime system. At the same time, Reality is a movie about show business but the point of view is from the victim of this show business, so I think this is the first similarity that comes to my mind.
Then probably I would say Gomorrah was a black fairytale and I would say also Reality is a fairytale – a very black one also! There is always this – I always try to be realistic but at the same time also visionary, fantastical; to achieve a sort of magic realism.
How did you arrive at the idea of reality TV, why now?
The story comes from a true story, in fact. This happened to the brother of my wife, who is from Napoli, and so was a story that I heard in my family one year after it happened, when all the tragedy was at the end. I thought this story was really surprising and with the help of the 'real' Luciano, we started to write a subject and then with the help of my screenwriter we began to try to make a movie that could be a sort of modern fairytale, try to combine the realism with a fantastical dimension.
I think the most important thing for me is to be clear that it's not a movie 'about' reality shows. I'm absolutely not interested in them; I'm much more interested in talking about human conflict and talk about the desire, illusion.
Reality was probably the most difficult movie I've done. Outwardly it seems to speak about television but that's not important, this television. Hitchcock used to talk about the 'McGuffin' and here, Big Brother is the McGuffin – it's not important. What is more important, in this story is the audience and the human conflict that the lead, Luciano, lives in, and how he loses his identity to reach his goal and to prove to everybody that he exists. For him – like for many other people – to 'arrive' to be in television is a means to show to everybody that he exists – it's a sort of certification of your existence. So the problem is it's not just narcissistic – it becomes existential, which is why the movie becomes very dark in the second part.
And you dive into the consequences of his family and friends' contagious enthusiasm…
Yes, we talk about a part of society that has a sort of contagion because Luciano is pushed by the family and the neighbour to try to get the chance to become famous. It's not coming from him. It's about a part of society that is infected by this aspect. It's about why a society, not just one, is pushed to desire always something that is connected to … why they try to escape from the everyday life.
It's capitalism – it puts people in a position that they always have to desire something that they don't have so they can buy. I live in this society – we live in this society – we live in the capitalism, so the movie is not out to denounce, and nor do I want to make a thesis against it. It's just we try to tell the story with humanity, about this guy that loses himself.
There are some strong influences from Italian cinema in your visual storytelling. Can we discuss some of your references?
Yes, my reference was most definitely in the great Italian movies of the '50s and '60s. I would say first of all that after I did Reality I realised it had many, many things in common with the first movie that Fellini made, The White Sheik (1952), which is about illusion, about dreams. Four months ago at the Foundation Fellini they made a night, a Big Dream, in which they screened The White Sheik and Reality – for me it was really great highlight for me. I was also influenced by the movies of De Sica, especially Matrimonio all'italiana (Marriage Italian Style, 1964) with Eduardo De Filippo.
Like in that great period of Italian cinema of '50s and '60s, this time Naples is much warmer than it was in Gomorrah, it's more decadent and colourful.
Your lead actor, Aniello Arena, had to interpret an entirely different 'reality' from his own. How did his own experience inform his character's lively imagination? [Editor's Note: Arena is currently 20 years into a life sentence for double murder, and made the film on day release].
He is a great, great actor. I saw him in theatre and I found he was great so we decided to work together to risk this challenge because it was his first movie – I'm very happy about the way we worked together.
He tried to push his personal experience and experience of the character, in a sort of marriage between the real person and the character we wrote. I would say he brought his personal experience – not about his life in the past, the crimes – but the fact he stayed for 20 years in a prison, so when he came out and made the journey with the character of Luciano, he really discovered something so you can see in the eyes, something that is completely a surprise. This aspect I think gives to his performance something that is unique.
And you surround him with some weird and wonderful characters. Where did you find those actors?
The movie wanted to be a comedy also – if a black comedy – so we cast actors from theatre but also actors that are comic theatre. They are good on comedy. Also the same time we wanted to make sort of Pixar movie, like the cartoon, which is actors which are very expressive but also funny, and close to the dimension of the fairy tales.
What's coming up next for you?
I'm working on new script but am trying to verify whether it will be the next project. I will try to do something new. For me, that's the most important thing, to try to do always something new that give me the chance to grow up as director and to see how I can manage with a new jump.
Is the crisis in the Italian and in the wider European economies having an impact on your upcoming projects? What's your reading of the situation at the moment?
We're at a moment in Italy, a crisis, for sure, but fortunately my movies went around the world so I can find producers around the world. In Italy it is a very difficult moment, yes it's true. But I hope in three or four years it will be behind us.
Reality is in select cinemas from June 27.