Director Matteo Garrone On Reality

In Features by Shelley Marsden

Acclaimed Italian director Matteo Garrone speaks to Shelley Marsden about his ‘black fairytale’ Reality…

Reality, by Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone, 45, and winner (for the second time) of the Cannes Grand Prix in 2012, takes viewers on a stunningly surreal journey into one man’s world as, ever more deluded, he becomes obsessed with reality TV and goes to ridiculous lengths to try and secure his place as one of its latest stars. It’s Naples again, but not the syringe-strewn stairwells and dank apartments of Gomorrah, but rather an absurdist, Fellini-esque trip around the decaying grandeur of the city’s old historic centre.

Gomorrah was a hard-hitting slice of the Neapolitan underworld, the Camorra, revealing a post-apocalyptic world made up of crime and violence. Reality is just as ambitious, but in a different way, a film of playful darkness which is almost Tim Burton-esque at times but also harks back to Italian neo-realism.  Its protagonist is Luciano, a fishmonger who makes some extra cash with a few little scams alongside his long-suffering wife Maria. A well-loved, colourful character, he’s always putting on performances for his customers and the never-ending stream of relatives that seem to congregate in his kitchen. But as Luciano’s own grip on reality starts to slide following a TV audition (for Italy’s version of Big Brother!), the working-class family man starts to get sucked into a dark world of delusion which sees him risking everything for those five minutes of fame.

This couldn’t be more different to Gomorrah. Was that a conscious decision?
At the beginning yes, I wanted to make a completely different movie. And then, I realised that what I was making was not so different. It’s also about a system; Gomorrah was about a crime system, and Reality is a look at the showbiz system. The story of Gomorrah is from the point of view of the victim, and Reality is about the victim of the world of showbiz. Both, to me, are black fairytales. Gomorrah starts with a science fiction scene, and Reality, in a way, ends like that. But initially I wanted to do something different so at the beginning Reality was a kind of dark comedy.

But it becomes gradually darker – is that in part to reflect the lead character’s increasing paranoia?
Yeah, well in the second part one of my references was Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller The Tenant (1976), starring Isabelle Adjani. I was also thinking about the earlier movies of Fellini, The White Sheik, and some films by Vittorio de Sica, like The Gold of Naples. We have so many masterpieces of Italian cinema to seek inspiration from.  At the same time, we wanted to make something that was a journey around my country, around its contradictions.

What can you tell me about your protagonist, the poor deluded Luciano?
I wanted to depict him as a nice guy, but with a great interior conflict. It is risky to dream! It’s the illusion; he doesn’t trust himself, so he invents this other character – which is the beginning of the tragedy. At the same time, he’s pushed by the family, the neighbours to go along and do the Big Brother Audition, so it’s a form of collusion on the part of society. We are a society that deals in dreams; people constantly push themselves away from their everyday lives in the hope that they get lucky and reach this artificial paradise. We all live in this society and feel those same pressures, so I didn’t want to approach Reality in a moralistic way. I wanted viewers throughout the movie to really feel for Luciano, to understand his inner conflict and not be judgemental. 

What has the phenomenon of reality TV done to people?
To me, it’s not so important in this film. It’s what Hitchcock defined as a MacGuffin, the device around which the plot centres, but Luciano’s journey becomes way more important than it. The fact is that for many people, to be on television is not just to become rich and famous – it’s to prove that you exist, that you’re alive – in a society where you only exist when everybody can see you on television.  That’s very sad. That’s why the second part of the movie became so dark; the psychosis of the character became so dark.

What gave you the idea for Reality?
It’s a true story, which came from my wife’s brother, the real Luciano! I discovered the story, it’s a simple one, and I thought it was one that could be developed and become a metaphor for something else.  It’s a story I had inside experience of, you could say. There are scenes in the movie that you might look at and think they’re unbelievable, but they really happened.

Aniello Arena, who plays Luciano, is actually in prison, isn’t that right? How did you find him?
He’s a leading actor in a prison theatre company. My father was a theatre critic, so I used to go with him a lot to the theatre and we were big fans of this company. He started to act with them 14 years ago. I’d already wanted to work with him for Gomorrah, but the judge didn’t give him the permission to do it because it was a movie about crime. So I tried again with Reality and finally we were allowed to work with him. But I cast him because I believe in his talent. He’s a great actor. It’s not because he’s a prisoner.  Acting has given Aniello a meaning to his life, and I’m sure that he will continue to act when he leaves prison, which should be quite soon, because he’s already been behind bars for 22 years.

Does his background somehow make him more believable as Luciano?
His talent as an actor, combined with the effect that he discovers this new world as the film progresses, gave something unique to his performance. You can see it in his eyes – he is really surprised. He acts with the eyes. There are two important aspects; his talent but also the fact that he came out and made a journey with the character, in a country that he himself was rediscovering for the first time in twenty years.

The Naples that you depict in Reality is more surreal, less gritty than the city seen in Gomorrah.
Sometimes I use a style which seems more documentary in a way (like Gomorrah), but I always try to start from a very real place, and then interpret that reality and bring it into another dimension.  It’s something that’s intrinsically connected to my way of making movies.  I can’t be too precise about that process either, because I’m not always conscious of it. I don’t try to understand what I do too much, because then you risk becoming predictable.

What’s it like having such success at Cannes (Aniello Arena wasn’t allowed to attend for Reality)?
I like to tell a story and I’m very happy when people have enjoyed it, really. I know that I’m lucky that I can make these beautiful films. I try to be honest and not lose myself, like Luciano. I try not to be seduced by artificial paradises. Luciano isn’t so far from me, or from you. That was our approach working on this project.

Reality (15) is available on DVD from 22 July.