In 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini gifted the world with the erudite-cult-classic Teorema (Theorem). In it, a mystical figure played by Terence Stamp lures members of a middle-class family in Milan (think nouveaux-riches or piccola borghesia kind of middle class) away from their dull existences one by one, and into the comfort of a spirituality not even they can qualify (and, because Pasolini is Pasolini, by way of intense sexual exchanges). The film is many things. Among them, it is a reflection on the decadence, superficiality, and frivolity of Pasolini’s contemporary society. The ease with which each family member falls under Stamp’s nameless character’s spell speaks to a real need, as Pasolini perceived it, for spiritual reform, for the location of one’s moral and elevated self in a higher power — though not necessarily a religious deity — in late 1960s Italy. Teorema speaks to and about a lost generation of faceless, De Chirico-like marionettes: empty shells trying to find meaning in the ever-expanding absence of it.
What Pasolini does for Italian film and social commentary in Teorema, Matteo Garrone does in Reality some forty-four years later. In it, he puts his best (and best-known) characteristics on display: the compelling depiction of contemporary Italian society against a Neapolitan background, the idiosyncrasy of a language now emerging as its own, distinct form of Italian, the retelling of a story inspired by real-life events, all in service of the larger “neo neo-realist” project to which his oeuvre more generally ascribes. Following in Pasolini and other postwar neo-realists’ footsteps, Garrone’s characters, too, are genuine people with every-day concerns, and his cast is not exclusively composed of trained professionals. In a departure from his previous international successes (L’Imbalsamatore, 2002; Gomorra, 2008), however, his characters in Reality are only presumably associated with the camorra (Neapolitan mafia) pervasive in their area. Taking its place is a haunting by a larger power invading Italian homes and lives: Reality TV. Big Brother. And that other, Orwellian, Big Brother.
(Did I mention, George Orwell appeared as a movie director in Pasolini’s 1963 short film La ricotta? It’s truly all connected.)
Luciano is a fish-seller with a modestly successful self-owned business, run in collaboration with a good friend. To give his family the lives and futures they deserve and with the help of his wife, he supplements these honest earnings with the illegal sale of kitchen robots, and appearances in drag at various family or community functions. The film makes clear that Luciano is a well-loved entertainer. He makes people laugh regardless of what he is wearing or the kind of face he has painted over his. The laughter he elicits and the pride he takes in doing so are his best features. As is the case with many anti-heroes, however, they are also his most fatal.
When television producers open casting for the Italian version of Big Brother in his neighbourhood in Naples, he at first hesitatingly, and then with increasing conviction decides to audition for a role. Not long afterwards, he is called to participate in a screen-test in Rome. Only when he is back home in Naples does his life begin to unravel in a long and painful yearning for a phone call from the Big Brother production team. He becomes convinced that Italian television spies are watching his every move in an informal evaluation of his suitability for a role, and changes his behaviour dramatically. What starts as a general kindness shown to those less fortunate than he — in the hopes of fare bella figura, making a good impression — soon devolves into a mystical crisis of faith the repercussions of which extend well beyond his material possessions and family. Reality is a tragedy in the most classic sense of the word. It starts happily and ends badly. It opens with a wedding and ends with the dissolution of a family unit, the unraveling of a man’s life and identity. It is the flip side of the “crisi mistica a buon fine” Pasolini delivers in Teorema. It is a comedy gone terribly wrong.
Like all great films, Reality delivers more than just a basic plot. Indeed, as our viewers put it in post-screening discussion of the film, the plot is not the driving force of the movie. A slow start, un-engaging to some, eventually gives way to a credible portrait of the end of a marriage, the end of a livelihood, the isolation that comes with the withdrawal of community support, all realistic in their seeming banality. Garrone pits what is truly at stake — a man’s life — against the “new morality” of his world. Luciano’s behaviour changes only when he assumes he is being watched by television producers, and only as a result of their presumed judgement of him. His moral code is dictated not by an inner ethical conviction, but by appearance; his performances in drag are to make him come across as “likeable”, his benevolence to the poor is to make him “look favourable” to the casting crew. His life is overrun by a pervasive concern not with the proper treatment of others, but with the image of it to those around him. Rarely do the two align. It is a topic of growing interest today, especially in North America and following the 2018 Facebook privacy scandals. But in 2012, in Italy, it was only an avant-garde thought in the minds of few informed by Italians’ sweeping obsession with social mores, “proper form,” perceived status. Still today, the kind of car you drive means more to many Italians than the behaviour of the person who sits behind the wheel. Garrone puts the superficiality of this attitude under the microscope in Reality by turning reality television into one of the film’s central characters. Luciano’s entire town watches Big Brother assiduously. It is a staple in the households of his neighbourhood on the brink of poverty. But the so-called “reality” it claims to expose is as fabricated and artificial as the kitchen robots Luciano sells. We are shown glimpses of a house inhabited by young, beautiful people with perfect, lithe bodies and shiny, bouncing hair. They look nothing like the people in Luciano’s surroundings. Their stories are scripted to fuel the addiction of those watching. It is not their world that viewers have invaded, observing like flies on the wall; it is they who take over the homes of those who watch them; it is their stories that settle like dust on the minds and spirits of their viewers.
Reality tackles other important social issues as well: our growing, well-founded concern with being watched — by Google, by the government, by Facebook (the Big Brother complex); the statute of limitations on a marriage and the behaviours that justify divorce in the eyes of a heavily Catholic, traditional Italian community; ego-centrism and influencers’ persistent message to “never give up” even when that means contributing to the collapse of your home or family unit; the treatment of poor or marginalized members of society (and, by extension, the ROM crisis in central and southern Italy); the average Italian’s aversion to charity as a direct result of the scarcity of good, paying jobs; society’s general preference for concrete markers of status over an innerly-lived caritas. These themes are not inserted into the film. They are extracted from it. They live there, with its characters and constitute the very base of all of their decisions.
Our viewers found the film difficulty to watch at times. The Neapolitan dialect used, to those unfamiliar with it and not in the habit of reading quickly flashing subtitles, can be taxing to follow and detrimental to the overall enjoyment and understanding of the film. This was the most common feedback heard during our discussion. Some elements of the film seem superfluous or, at any rate, less measured than most. Yet everyone in the room agreed that Reality is an interesting consideration of madness, of a spirituality turned inward and translated there into an eternal fantasy, of how easily one’s perception of reality can become skewed.
Reality is followed by Garrone’s critically-acclaimed 2018 release, Dogman.