The star of “Reality,” Aniello Arena, has the face of a clown who hasn’t yet realized the joke’s on him. He has a long, long jaw and a nose that’s almost a punch line in itself; dark eyes that are alternately friendly and antic. Even his thinning hair seems to give off sparks. He could be Roberto Benigni’s second cousin, less cherubic, less annoying, more grounded and more doomed.
The film’s about what happens when Arena’s character, an easygoing Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano, gets seduced by the promise of reality TV, in this case the smash hit Italian version of “Big Brother.” The movie’s a funny, dark, increasingly razor-sharp inquiry into the metaphysics of modern fame — how the dream of “being seen” and thus validated on some primal level can completely unhinge the average schmo. As cautionary tales go, this one’s ripely knowing, and it speaks in a lot more languages than Italian.
Luciano isn’t even interested in fame when the movie opens. Content to run his stall in the town square with his partner, a simple soul named Michele (Nando Paone), he’s the neighborhood ham who dresses in drag for parties to amuse the kids. His relationship with his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), is warm and physical. He loves his children and puts up with his bickering extended clan.
Yet when Luciano’s kids coax him into a local audition for the next season of “Big Brother,” a door opens somewhere inside him, and when he’s called to Rome for the finals, he comes out a new man. He feels the interviewers have uncovered a different Luciano, a real Luciano, and, certain he’ll be picked for the show, he goes home and waits. And waits.
The bulk of “Reality” is taken up with that waiting period, with the hero caroming from visions of stardom to ravening doubts to a creeping paranoia as horrifying as it is comic. The TV show’s producers are doubtless interested in Luciano because he’s so “real,” but being left stranded between their reality and his becomes too much to bear. I won’t spoil the various stops on the hero’s modern pilgrim’s progress, but it turns out to be a short step from wanting to be watched to assuming you are being watched. By everybody.
The relevance this all has to our current media landscape (and the ways in which we define ourselves within it) is immense and obvious, but “Reality” keeps its cool and stays specific. The drama is aided immeasurably by the supporting performances, especially Simioli as Luciano’s increasingly fed-up better half. Anna Magnagni-esque in stature, humor, and earthiness, she’s a real Real Housewife of Naples, and she’s magnificent. Next to her, the former “Big Brother” winner Enzo (Raffaelle Ferrante) — whom Luciano stalks for reassurance that he’s still in the running — is a sleazy shadow of an actual person. But he was on TV, so he has to be important, right?
Despite the title, the movie finds director Matteo Garrone in a playful mood. His previous work, 2008’s astonishing “Gomorrah,” was an unromanticized epic about the Neapolitan mob that felt so close to the ground you could have mistaken it for a documentary. The reference points in “Reality,” by contrast, run from Fellini (a tacky circus of an opening wedding ceremony; Luciano’s grandly lumpy aunts and uncles) to Italian neo-realism to the dry surrealism of Luis Bunuel, the latter in a scene — the film’s quiet high point — involving the hero and a watchful cricket. Yet Garrone’s his own man, and underneath the movie’s bright colors and boisterous dialogue runs a certainty that something is not right in Naples, nor the rest of the world.
Luciano’s problem, of course, is that Big Brother isn’t watching him (or not that he can tell), and his efforts to cross to the other side of the mirror ultimately render him something of a holy fool. The actor playing him has a bizarre back story of his own: Arena is currently in prison serving a life sentence for the murder of three Neapolitan gangsters in his youth, and while a judge granted permission for him to appear in “Reality,” he’d return to a cell every day after filming.
I’m not sure how much bearing that has on Arena’s performance, but it adds another layer of impact to the blissful imprisonment Luciano finally chooses for himself. And it explains the actor’s comment (in a Google-worthy interview in the London Guardian) that “real life is actually the theatre.” To really believe that all the world’s a stage — is that our big chance or a tragic mistake? The further back we stand from this movie’s concentric circles of reality, the more they appear to have been hand-drawn by Dante.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.