In the early days of television, the cinema had a tendency to insert critical discourse, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in more subtle ways. To name a few, you had the explicitness of Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd, still one of the most complex and thoughtful understandings of media to be put to film, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, in which the television symbolizes the female hero’s entrapment, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, a 1971 film set in the ‘50s that celebrates going to the movies and condemns watching TV. Why such hate for the new medium? That’s an easy one: because TV is a threat to movies among the masses. People are less likely to go out and spend money at a movie theater when they can watch something in the comfort of their own living room, and that was doubly so when home video meant that people could see the same movies playing right now if they just waited a year or so.
Somehow, 40 years after The Last Picture Show, the message has not changed. The latest offender is Matteo Garrone’s Grand Prix winning Reality, in which a man’s obsession with appearing on the Italian version if Big Brother gradually results in his losing his mind. Thankfully, Reality does more than just succumb to an easy and overplayed “television is making you stupid” message, but when the film reaches its end, that is still one of the biggest messages. But Reality is very much about the journey, not the destination (which is surprisingly ambiguous in its specifics, anyway), and most of the journey is quite good. The opening, an aerial tracking shot full of bright, Tati-esque colors, lasts a couple of minutes and captivatingly follows a horse carriage to a gate and into a wedding. There, the festivities continue and Alexandre Desplat’s sparingly but precisely employed score reinforce the sequence’s almost fantastic element. The title “Reality” refers just as much to reality TV as it does to this sequence, in which the film’s look captures the beautiful moments and eventually contrasts the drained, colorless lows of existence.
It’s a remarkable way to open the film, and its strength resonates throughout even the film’s predictable second act. But Garrone’s direction doesn’t stop there; he makes great use of over-lapping and naturalistic dialogue to keep the film grounded in realism, a crucial step in keeping the tone balanced through scenes of saturated color and extravagant music even with the preference for long takes. It also brings out the comedy, which prevents a typical working class tale from becoming too self-important. To keep things interesting, Garrone inserts a couple scenes in a night club, in which costumes, lighting, and cinematography make for a whirl of sensations and spectacle, energetic but grim. After a tremendous opening sequence, it’s nice to see a couple other scenes get the same level of attention, even if they are shorter.
But as the film goes on, it abandons its loose approach to working-class family matters and establishes its story. When that story, of a fish salesman named Luciano (Aniello Arena, in an impressively confident screen debut) who auditions for Big Brother at the urging of his children arrives, many of the film’s virtues go. The film wisely loses its color to reflect Luciano’s lack of happiness and single-minded obsession, but it also devolves into his paranoid delusions of a more Orwellian Big Brother and loses much of the humor, morphing Reality into a dreary and tonally uneven film. It holds together by keeping an emphasis on family and visual astuteness, but the supporting characters are far from memorable and much of what makes the film’s first hour original disappears, and just as the film forgets about a side-plot involving Luicano’s black-market ventures which we are perfectly willing to forget, the film reminds us, only to forget it again, this time eliciting frustration instead of indifference.
The imbalance results in a film that is only partially satisfying either way: Is it a satire that lacks sufficient humor and especially lacks truly enlightening humor? Or is it a drama that is content to tell us what other films have been telling us for decades? Neither option is desirable, and despite the great craft, performances, and score, Reality spends its latter half trying to climb up, and it never quite gets back to where it began.