One thing that seemingly all the English-speaking reviewers of the latest movie by Matteo Garrone, director of Italian Comorra mob drama Gomorrah, overlooked is that the lead actor, Aniello Arena, who plays Luciano the fishmonger who dreams of appearing in the Italian version of Big Brother in Reality, is not only a convicted murderer, but was convicted for a gangster slaying of three men in 1991. More than that, when he was convicted it was ruled that Arena should never be considered for parole, so when he finished filming his takes during the day on the movie, the prisoner would return to his prison cell at night in the maximum security Volterra gaol.
When assessing a movie like any other work of art, a reviewer should of course focus on the work itself and not be swayed by details beyond the frame, but when you consider that the director wanted Arena to play a hit man in his previous movie and had his request denied by the prison authorities, it’s quite significant that the unrepentant former gangster was able to play this part and play it with such authority and credibility.
It’s hard not to view a character with a perfectly lovely family, but with an insane desire to appear on Big Brother, (or Grande Fratello as it’s known in Italy), as someone longing to be locked away in a superficially glamorous prison, where the prisoners are constantly watched and their lives scrutinised by anyone who happens to tune in.
Imagine the prisoner turned movie star who plays the deluded family man by day and returns alone to be locked up in a real prison every night and what extra dramatic and emotional insights he may bring to the role. Life imitates reality and reality imitates life in a goldfish bowl reflected in the lens of an all-seeing camera.
Arena is undoubtedly an unusual type of gangster movie star and he has a face capable of nuanced emotion and intense expression. His descent into a peculiar form of twenty-first century madness is both alarming and utterly predictable. The film is not without comedy and some great set pieces. The opening helicopter sequence is a Fellini-style swoop from high above Naples to a magical coach and horses, rushing towards a wedding reception where we first meet Luciano and his wife, in-laws and children at a family wedding, where a former Big Brother ‘star’ is the main wedding entertainment.
You can’t help think of the great Fellini later too, when the family turn up at Rome’s Cinecittà studios where Fellini made so many of his masterpieces and where Big Brother is filmed. From La Dolce Vita to Grande Fratello, how Italian society and Italian cinema has fallen!
Luciano of course is not alone in his media madness, there are thousands and thousands who share the same Big Brother obsession, and he is encouraged by his family and the local Neopolitan community to follow his dream. Reality is not only the story of a man who goes mad because he wants to become famous; it’s the story of a society that has become dangerously contaminated.