Our second night of the festival, and after the brusque security slabs and barking BFI drones at the Odeon West End (“KEEP MOVING!!!”), it was off to the altogether more pleasant and relaxed Renoir for Reality, the winner of this year's Grand Prix at Cannes, co-written and directed by Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah).
Encouraged by his family and dazzled after an encounter with Enzo (an awful former contestant turned helicopter-hopping celebrity, played by Raffaele Ferrante), Luciano talks his way into a local audition. When he's invited to Rome for the next stage of the selection process, he becomes convinced that his place in the house is assured.
However, the arrival of two chic Roman women at his down-at-heel shop puts a notion in his mind: he begins to think that the BB producers are spying on him to see what he's really like, and he starts to change his behaviour accordingly.
Part of the film's attractive light touch is the subtlety with which Luciano's delusions are presented; as he starts to sense he's under surveillance, we get a little sucked into it, spotting 'suspicious' figures who seem to be paying close attention to the fishmonger.
Reality is a beautifully ironic title for the film, as Luciano's loosening grip on it starts to affect his work and family life. The theme of reality versus fantasy is introduced from the first minute, with a fairy-tale carriage rolling through the grimy Neapolitan streets to deliver a bride and groom to a ludicrous Regency-style wedding venue.
Arena carries the film well, being utterly convincing in his wonder and blank-eyed certainty that getting on the show would solve all of his problems. Astonishingly, the director revealed in a brief Q&A after the film that his leading man is currently 12 years into a prison sentence: he's part of a prison-based theatre company that Garrone has seen several times with his father, a theatre critic.
Finding out Arena's status threw a new light on his very natural and affecting performance – especially his scenes as a devoted father with his young family. I guess it would have also fuelled some of Luciano's wide-eyed wonder at the world of celebrity and riches awaiting him (embodied in one trippy appearance by Enzo in an infernal nightclub).
Luciano is surrounded by a wide supporting cast of friends and extended family, torn between not wanting to shatter his illusion and realising that he's slipped too far into his fantasy world. Loredana Simioli particularly shines as Maria, his feisty but increasingly exasperated wife.
As you'd expect, Reality exudes a strong sense of place, starting with a lengthy helicopter shot over the sprawling low-rise city in the shadow of Vesuvius. Luciano and his family live in an incredibly photogenic old apartment building – supporting what Garrone described as the 'fairy-tale' tone of the film – and the square in which his shop is located is similarly characterful.
The climactic – and virtually wordless – final few minutes of the film finally take Luciano through the looking glass, as he enters mesmerised into a place where his fantasy meets reality. It marks the conclusion of Garrone's humorous but moving play with the dramatic irony between what Luciano thinks and what we can see.
And it's fitting that this film – dark, warming and a little bitter, like an expensive bar of chilli chocolate – ends with the sound of laughter.
* The Italian version of Big Brother. Just think about that for a moment. Brrr.
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