CANNES, France -- "The Hunger Games" author Suzanne Collins may have wanted to sound an alarm bell about reality television with her blockbuster trio of novels. But for those who believe a fascination with the unscripted is the province of pop entertainment, a foreign auteur at of the Cannes Film Festival wants us to know he has something to say about it too.
Matteo Garrone, the young Italian director who turned heads with his Scorsese-like portrayal of mob-infested Naples in 2008's "Gomorrah," returns to Cannes with a very un-Scorsese-like film, "Reality," a dramatic satire that premiered to reporters at a packed screening here Friday morning.
The new Italian-language feature shifts gears quite a bit from the blood-spattered mercilessness of "Gomorrah." It tells of Luciano (Aniello Arena), a 40-ish married father of three who, after seeing a reality star at a family wedding, becomes fixated on the idea of appearing on the Italian edition of Big Brother ("Grande Fratello" in the local parlance, which somehow has a classier ring to it).
At first it's clearly a money issue, as Luciano dreams of how the series can take him from the life of a small-time fish vendor and hustler straight to Easy Street. But after getting a callback audition, Luciano's "Big Brother" interest starts to becomes an obsession for its own sake, driving him to acts of ever-greater desperation.
Convinced, for instance, that he is being spied on by casting directors for the show, he begins giving away his possessions in the hope that the directors will see him as a good person and come to assign him a slot. (Luciano's delusions about what reality television producers are actually looking for is a form of satire in its own right.)
As Luciano's increasingly horrified family looks on, he becomes more certain he will end up on the program, even maintaining the belief after the show begins its new season with all the contestants -- notably younger, hotter and crazier -- already in place.
Though the film seems unmistakably like a parable about, and an indictment of, a larger social obsession, Garrone begged off that reading in a post-screening news conference.
"This is a tale of just one person. One shouldn't draw conclusions about other things," he said, adding, "This isn't a story that's typical of a whole country or society. ... We shot the film without trying to be critical in any way."
The director did say he waited four years to make a new film because "after 'Gomorrah' I was looking for a subject that would be as powerful ... and I was heading straight into a brick wall.”
Like "Gomorrah," Garrone returns to the distinct streets of Naples for his new work, though he is much more interested this time around in the subconscious insecurities of everyday people than the subterranean life of mob hit men.
"Gomorrah" was a sensation at Cannes four years ago, winning buckets of plaudits with its many fractured story lines (and bones) as well as a major prize from the festival. When the foreign-language Oscar committee later left the film off its shortlist, the snub was so great that it prompted a rule change the following year.
Garrone's new film may too low-key and human to stir that kind of passion. But its tale of a man slowly descending into madness as a result of reality television will resonate with anyone who has ever studied contemporary pop culture, or turned on the E! network.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Reality." Credit: Fandango