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Pilgrim's misguided tilt at TV fame

Reality (M). Director: Matteo Garrone. Starring: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Raffaele Ferrante. 111 minutes.

This funny and disturbing Italian drama opens with a long aerial shot, of a resplendent horse-drawn carriage travelling incongruously along a city street. It zooms in, to follow the carriage onto the grounds of an exquisite estate and into the midst of an elaborate wedding. It considers the revellers en masse before eventually singling one out for special attention. This magnificent bravura sequence evokes from the outset the sense of a divine gaze picking out an individual life from the sprawl of reaility, and for a while watching it in intimate detail.

It underlines the film's central existential and ethical theme, regarding how we behave differently when we are being watched, and how the identity of the watcher affects the motivations of the watched. In this instance, the one who the divine gaze picks out is preoccupied by other gazes. Luciano, a garrulous Neapolitan fishmonger, enjoys being the centre of attention. He appears at this family wedding dressed in drag, a kind of irreverent performance art for which he is apparently renowned and beloved by his extended family.

This reputation for playful exhibitionism later prompts his family to encourage him to audition for the Italian Big Brother. Initially reluctant to do so, Luciano becomes gradually obsessed with the temptation of wealth and fame. After he passes two rounds of auditions, his obsession is fuelled by his certainty that the producers want him for their program. Instead of waning into disappointment, this conviction grows even as the date for the series launch comes and goes. His obsession causes him to neglect his wife (Simioli) and their children.

Luciano is a religious pilgrim on the wrong path. He doesn't want to know God; he wants to be God. His aspiration is epitomised by super-celebrity former Big Brother contestant Enzo (Ferrante), who appears irregularly in Luciano's life, always surrounded by slavering admirers. In one scene Enzo appears to fly from the rafters of a nightclub amid coloured, flashing lights and blaring music, as his worshippers (Luciano among them) chant and swoon below, conflating celebrity with divinity.

Of course, you can see the ropes that suspend Enzo from the ceiling. His divinity is artifice, a combination of marketing and special effects. Earlier in the film, he had appeared at the aforementioned wedding, and performed a well-received benediction. Moments later, he was glimpsed at another wedding uttering the same 'heartfelt' words. The celebrity Enzo is a god whose blessing can be bought and sold. That this is what Luciano aspires to speaks of the vacuousness of his quest.

Evantually Luciano's obsession manifests as a paranoid conviction that the producers are testing him; that his life has become an audition. For this reason he begins giving away his belongings to the poor. This is contrary to his natural inclinations; earlier in the film he had rudely turned away a homeless man who asked him for help (he may be gregarious, but he's not very nice). It is a charitable act of biblical proportions, except for the question of motivation: it is good-deeds-by-rote, performed only to secure fame and fortune for himself.

Reality finds dark humour in Luciano's delusion. So acute does his paranoia become, that even an unusual insect earns from him a sly, knowing glance. He pleads with two startled widows at a funeral, who reassure him that he is on the right path to getting into 'the house'; while they think they've offered comfort to a troubled seeker, he thinks he's received an inside tip from Big Brother's spies. The dissonance between his pursuit of the god of fame, and the humility and comfort found in the deep religious faith held by others in the film, is profound.

This comes to a head late in the film, when Enzo joins his devout cousin for a candlelight vigil at St Peter's Square. There is hope and relief on offer here for Enzo if he chooses to embrace it, and even viewers who are skeptical of organised religion might at this point pray for him to do so. The scene precedes a tense and unsettling finale in which Enzo must choose to stay his path or correct it. It lays bare the aching gulf between how we behave because Big Brother is watching, and who we are in the eyes of God.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Reality, reality TV, Big Brother, George Orwell



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