It wouldn’t be surprising if Italian director Matteo Garrone had difficulty finding the right project to work on after his acclaimed crime drama “Gomorrah.” The film was both a commercial and critical success, winning the Grand Prix award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the second most prestigious award at the competition. He earned the same prize again at last year’s festival for his latest film, “Reality,” a “comedy” about a fishmonger named Luciano who grows obsessed with appearing on the reality television series “Grande Fratello” – the Italian “Big Brother.” The movie, which stars Aniello Arena, may seem like a departure for the filmmaker, but as it mutates into a study of what society does to a man, it becomes clear that the film fits into Garrone’s oeuvre. ARTINFO recently sat down with the director to talk about how his film isn’t about reality television, the problem with societal systems, and working with an incarcerated star.
Your last film, “Gomorrah,” was about organized crime in Naples, while “Reality” is about a man who becomes obsessed with appearing on a reality television series. What led you to this story?
“Reality” comes from a true story that happened in my family – to the brother of my wife. I thought it was interesting and surprising. And it was also a story that could be funny, but still tragic – a black fairy tale.
Was it important to do a comedy after working on such a bleak drama?
I wanted to do something different, but I don’t know if it is in the end. I understand that it’s not a classic comedy, it’s very dark. My point of view is the same. Also, “Gomorrah” was a black fairy tale too. Its big theme was an overpowering system and “Reality” is about the show business system. Both are dangerous.
Are you interested in how systems affect people?
In my movies obsession is something that’s always there. “Reality” is a movie about capitalism. This man was pushed by his family and the neighborhood to do [apply to the show], so it’s about how society is contaminated. It’s a contagion. Trying to escape from everyday life to reach some artificial paradise. A very dramatic aspect in this movie is that they want to have something more, because what they have is not enough. They’re not poor, they have a business, a house, but they want something else. That’s capitalism. We try to tell this story from the point of view of the character and the family, without putting ourselves in.
Was it hard trying to keep yourself separate from the character?
I feel very close to this character, to some part of his personality. He’s a naif, he’s pure in a way. I think it’s a movie that talks about us as a society. He invented a new character he thinks is better suited to succeed. So he starts to lose himself, his identity. This is something I think is very modern. It can happen to everybody.
Do you think it’s a problem that many people view fame as the only way to change one’s life?
Yeah. In this case the family wants him to become famous so they can become rich. I think it’s one aspect. But I think for Luciano, for him to be on television means something much more. To him it proves to everybody that he exists. To be recognized – a confirmation of his existence. It becomes an existential problem, not just a narcissistic problem. And I think that’s important.
How would you describe the role of reality television and “Big Brother” in the film?
It’s a MacGuffin. It’s something that’s important for the story but it’s not really important. It’s important for the action but not really to the story.
Was that always your intention or was that something that happened as filming progressed?
What pushed me to tell this story was the human conflict of this guy. You can easily lose yourself in the seduction of the society. There’s a wonderful movie of Federico Fellini’s called “The White Sheik” and the theme of the movie is very close to “Reality.” There was this woman who came to Rome to be married, but she escapes to see the hero of her [soap opera photo comics].
Did you feel a greater responsibility on this film since the story came from someone so close to you?
I spoke with [my wife’s brother]. He went to a doctor for almost a year. He took medicine. After he found himself again, we talked about this project and he said that he wanted to develop and tell the story, so we did it together. I didn’t force him to do it.
Aniello Arena, who plays Luciano, was (and still is) in prison while you were working on the movie. He had acted in the theater before – which is where you’d seen him – but never in a film. Why choose him as opposed to someone more famous for the role?
I saw many different type of actors, some more famous, some less. Then I decided to give it to him, this role, to challenge him because this was his first movie. I saw him in the theater, and I thought he was a great actor.
Did the authorities have any problems with Arena working on the film?
Everyday we gave the police the program – the shooting schedule. They wanted to know where we were shooting every day, so they could come to check. So we didn’t have a problem. At night, he’d go back to jail.
It didn’t make things more difficult?
Sometimes. When the weather was changing and wanted to change sets, we couldn’t. We had to keep to the plan. If we wanted to make a scene, and that day it was raining, and we wanted to go to another set, we couldn’t because we had given the police another address.
What's next for you?
I’m reading up. I have some ideas, but nothing I’ve started to develop yet.