'Reality' examines the dangers of celebrity worship

'Reality' has some loose ends, but actor Aniello Arena as protagonist Luciano is a live-wire presence.

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Actor Aniello Arena stars in 'Reality.'

The adoration of celebrity is, of course, not confined to America. Neither is the desire to become one. “Reality,” the new film from Italy’s Matteo Garrone, is ostensibly about a working-class fishmonger with delusions of making it big on a hit reality TV series, but it casts a wide net. It’s really about the ways in which celebrity worship deranges all of us. (Like Garrone’s previous movie, “Gomorrah,” it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival.)

Garrone doesn’t make the mistake of turning his protagonist, Luciano (Aniello Arena), into a bland Everyman. He never loses his singularity. He’s too avid for that. A family man with a big, buzzing circle of relatives, he lives in a rundown section of Naples and runs an illegal mail-order scheme on the side.

We first see him and his brood at a wedding where he plays a cross-dressing clown, in full greasepaint, and strikes a glancing connection with the wedding host, Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), who made it big as a contestant on the hugely popular reality TV show “Big Brother.”

Pushed by his family into trying out for the show, Luciano leaves the audition in Rome believing he’s a shoo-in for a callback. He convinces everybody that he’s only one phone call away from fame. He tells his wife, Maria (a marvelous Loredana Simioli), that they will be “set for life, all our problems will be solved.” Maria is the only hard-line skeptic in the bunch, but she’s no match for Luciano’s charm offensive.

Luciano is deluding himself that his imminent “Big Brother” celebrity is his apotheosis. He believes he is anointed. When the call doesn’t come, he holds out anyway. His Neapolitan neighbors want a celebrity in their midst, so they become part of Luciano’s not-so-grand illusion. (A wide-eyed bartender tells Luciano he’s pouring him a last drink before he becomes famous.)

Michele (Nando Paone), his hawk-faced business partner, genuinely cares about Luciano, who is descending almost imperceptibly into deeper states of delusion. A fierce Roman Catholic, Michele tries to impress upon his friend how much people already care about the noncelebrity in their midst. He gets Luciano to assist in handing out food for the poor at the local church.

This last gesture is almost superfluous, since Luciano, who had earlier harshly spurned a beggar, has become a great giver of charity. For the indigent he begins to empty his apartment of its imitation designer furniture until a furious, disbelieving Maria steps in. Luciano may have initiated these deeds to attract favorable notice from the “Big Brother” producers he’s convinced are covertly covering his actions, but he soon begins to believe in his own sanctity. He becomes a holy fool. (Michele reminds Luciano that God is watching him even if “Big Brother” isn’t.)

Garrone doesn’t play up Luciano’s story as an occasion for sniping or social satire. He doesn’t condescend to Luciano’s fantasies even though that would have been easy enough to do. “Reality” isn’t patronizing toward anybody, not even Enzo, whose motto is “hold on to your dreams” and who is presumably living for real the life Luciano covets beyond measure.

Luciano’s descent (which he would term an ascent) could have been more richly demonstrated, and there are meandering interludes in disco clubs and at Good Friday services that seem off the mark. But the loose ends are knitted by Arena’s live-wire presence.

It was something of a shock for me to discover that Arena is a convict serving a long sentence for organized crime activities. He was discovered in a prison theater workshop and was let out of prison by day for filming.

Coming on the heels of the Taviani brothers’ quasi-documentary “Caesar Must Die,” about the staging of “Julius Caesar” in a maximum-security lockup, “Reality” gives credence to the notion that Italian prisons are hotbeds of acting talent. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some language.)

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