Matteo Garrone’s Reality, the story of a fishmonger who becomes blinded by the lights of reality TV, was awarded the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Garrone sees the film as something of a companion piece to his previous work, the acclaimed mafia film Gomorrah. “Both of them are about victims,” he says. “Gomorrah is a film about a criminal syndicate, told from the point of view of the victim, and Reality is a movie about show business, told from the point of view of the victim. Reality is a much more colourful film. We used the great comedies of the ’50s and ’60s as references of Fellini and Visconti. We show a brighter and more decadent side of Naples, but at heart, the two movies have a lot in common.”

The film’s star, Aniello Arena, is anything but your conventional leading man. A convicted murderer, he is currently serving a prison sentence for gunning down three rival gang members in Naples in 1991. While imprisoned, Arena developed an interest in acting, and it was in a prison theatre company where Garrone first saw him performing. “I knew immediately I wanted to work with him,” Garrone says. “It was not easy, there were many complications, but I was very thankful when the judge finally gave permission.” Arena was given provisional release to shoot Reality – the film crew had to provide police with a complete shooting schedule, and the star was taken back to prison every night, but Garrone says that all the trouble was worth it.

“I think Aniello brings something unique to the performance, thanks to his past,” Garrone says. “The character of Luciano discovers a new world in the film – he has surprise and wonder in his eyes in every scene. Aniello had spent 20 years in prison before making this film, so every day on set, he was discovering new things about the world, and he put this aspect of his life into the character, and gave an emotion to the audience that was truly unique.” Arena remains in prison, where he has several years left on his sentence, but Garrone was grateful for the chance to work with him. “I think it was a great opportunity to show how a prisoner can find his way,” he says, “and can become a new person and go back into society as a reinvented man.”

Reality starts out as a comedy, as Luciano is tempted by the world of reality TV, but as his obsession with stardom grows, tone becomes more paranoid and insular. “We never really set out to make a straight comedy,” Garrone tells me. “We knew the story would become a lot darker as Luciano began to lose more of his identity and more of himself.” Garrone and his writing partners were interested in exploring the notion of an innocent being corrupted by powerful temptation. “I remember my reference for that part was The Tenant by Roman Polanski, a comedic film that increasingly becomes a lot darker.”

Garrone insists that Reality is not so much a critique of reality TV as it is a comment on the modern condition. “Stardom can make ordinary people famous and rich,” he says. “Luciano’s friends and family want that for him, so they push him to try out for the TV show. The pressure comes from the society where he lives, more than from him. To succeed, he invents a new character, that he feels will allow him to be much more successful than the real him. The character he invents is like a saint, and that’s the beginning of his tragedy, because he starts to lose himself, and to lose his sanity. This aspect is very modern.”

BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN

Realityopens in cinemas Thursday July 4.

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