Italy-France (2012). Dir: Matteo Garrone, Scr: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
It was many years ago, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I saw the tiny frail old lady standing alone, completely transfixed on a painting of the Madonna, lit by a beam of sunlight. Oblivious to everything around her, she was staring upward, lost in audible, feverish supplication. Now, in the cinema, Garrone shows me Luciano, the fish-stall trader from Naples, sitting alone in a broom-cupboard staring upward, transfixed on a tv screen, oblivious, lost. Giggling feverishly, he watches Grande Fratello, the Italian Big Brother. Of course, the idea that celebrity is the new religion isn’t new nor are we unaware that the basis of celebrity is becoming more random. But, from its fairytale opening sequence to final pathos, this film feels deeply for those who scrape a living among the beautiful buildings of old Naples and it worries about how they need desperately to make life feel more complete. Slightly sentimental? Possibly, but these things are worth worrying about.
Luciano is a canny, popular member of his local community and a loving husband and father. We first see him at a fantasy wedding reception, at which a short appearance by Enzo, a previous winner of Grande Fratello, is the highlight for the couple. Luciano causes hilarity when, in drag as one of his party pieces “The Bag Lady”, he accosts Enzo as he is leaving. Up close, Enzo and Luciano are very similar.
Luciano is too busy with the fish-stall and a credit scam to care much about Grande Fratello, but to keep his daughter happy he agrees to audition for the programme in the local shopping mall, “Just point the camera at me, it doesn’t matter if it’s on”. But sometime later, he receives a call asking him to attend a second audition in Rome. The community is buzzing and he returns to a hero’s welcome. But time passes and he hears nothing. Gradually he starts losing touch: he sees signs, feels that he is being watched, being tested, for selection. In a sadly comic but significant moment at a crematorium, he seeks advice from two old ladies paying their respects, “Be patient. You only need faith and hope to get into the ‘House’”. The worse his quasi-religious obsession becomes – he gives away all his worldy goods and loses his family – the more he seems to achieve a state of bliss.
The film is rich with ideas and contains stunning cinematic flourishes: aerial, sweeping shots of beautiful settings; at one point an elegant, single take of simultaneous scenes playing out in different rooms of a gothic mansion, and images of the destitute carrying off ornaments from Luciano’s house. It burst with empathy for the ordinary folk of Naples – Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, who was permitted day-release from prison to take part – and their lives. Rather obviously, it is a tragi-comic morality tale about the pursuit of celebrity and fame. But Garrone wants to say a little more. He delicately handles the importance of religion in the lives of the people he cares about – he makes Luciano’s most loyal friend the most religious. But when the priest says that “God understands the difference between being and seeming” (we can’t be sure), if Garrone is not adding religion to his list of hoaxes he is, at least, cautioning that no opiate should be allowed to take over.
Reality won the Grand Prix at last year’s (2012) Cannes Film Festival.
Also by Matteo Garrone: