Rampaging through the otherwise arid desertscape of contemporary Italian cinema, Matteo Garrone doesn't want for ambition; he may be the premier chronicler of Berlusconi-era Italian culture, and its most muscular satirist. (That is, when Italian society isn't busy outpacing satire altogether.) Reality, his followup to 2008's Gomorrah, begins with a realistic yet Fellini-esque wedding party so grotesque and overwrought that you feel the teeth of Garrone's ironic title in every glimpse of faux-aristo opulence. Is this real? Not for a moment, but it gets only more hyper-unreal when the nuptials, already crammed with frenzied disco gaiety and drag shtick, are guest-visited by a beloved former cast member of Big Brother, whose presence electrifies the crowd. The family patriarch, Luciano (Aniello Arena), is bedazzled as he watches the quasi-celeb get choppered away like a dignitary from another planet.
It's a world Luciano can't get out of his skull. Soon the hit Euro reality show is staging auditions in a Neapolitan mall, and to please his kids Luciano submits to an interview — despite being middle-aged and far from telegenic. His enthusiasm nets him subsequent auditions (which we don't see), and with just that much encouragement, his threadbare life selling fish and running pension scams begins to shred. Garrone's film explores nothing less than a mass delusion, personified by this one eager shmuck, a savvy Everyman who descends into paranoid magical thinking, finally obliterating his family and his sanity in order to cross over into the broadcast afterlife.
Garrone is in complete control of his thematic plutonium. Step by step, with a setup that evokes Honeymooners episodes, Reality builds to as scalding a vision of televisual simulacra and its maddened victims as Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Luciano mutates into the perfect television being: a man whose identity is defined by his blind devotion to the lie. It hardly matters that even in Italy, Big Brother is a fading phenom; the metaphor it presents, of being "on the show" as inhabiting a screen-idealized circle of Paradise, is dazzlingly rich.
It may be overstating things to detect a Dantean map beneath the drama, an idea that bruises when you find out that Arena, who's sensational in a demanding role, is a prison convict with a life sentence, shooting the film on day passes and returning to his cell at night. What wouldn't this weathered, muscly hard-luck case do to step over the threshold himself, and live in a heavenly TV bubble? (Is it a coincidence that the Tavianis' contemporaneous Caesar Must Die also looked to Italy's mobster-filled prisons?) A prizewinner at Cannes, Garrone's film grows in your head afterward, making royal hash out of a cultural paradigm we'll be loath to remember years from now — if, by then, everything hasn't become "reality."