As its fishmonger protagonist slides down toward madness while pursuing a shot at TV stardom, the Italian fable “Reality” contains nothing unique or revelatory. But between the plot dots, this fantastical journey and neorealist comedy (yes, there is such a thing) is a skillfully spun, entertaining tale about how people equate fame and flash with human worth.
The director and co-writer is Matteo Garrone, whose credits include the mob tapestry “Gomorrah.” If the earlier film was a big-picture drama with individual stories being devices serving the whole, “Reality,” is, conversely, an intimate comedy with universal undertones. It is smaller in scope but hardly lesser.
The story suggests a blend of “The King of Comedy,” “The Truman Show,” “Requiem for a Dream” and Garrone’s take on consumer culture, Italian-style.
The central character is a modern-day version of the fabular fisherman-as-everyman — a Naples fishmonger and family man.
Initially, Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a down-to-earth sort with a loving wife (Loredana Simioli), a petty appliance-scam operation that brings in some extra euros and a weakness for limelight that he satisfies by donning silly wigs and entertaining friends.
But then, in a passage set at a garish wedding that sets the film’s tone splendidly, Luciano meets Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a reality-TV star who arrives via helicopter, as if from the firmament.
At his family’s urging, Luciano soon auditions for a role on the hit show “Big Brother.” Wowed by the glitz, he becomes obsessed with showbiz glory. When the studio doesn’t call, delusion occurs. For starters, Luciano determines that every stranger he meets is a studio spy sent to assess him.
His best friend (Nando Paone) tries to help Luciano by taking him to a different sort of spectacle, a papal holy-day appearance. To little avail.
There is nothing profound about this film, which contains the familiar message that fame is not merit and that TV paints false pictures of what life should be. Nor is its comedy particularly biting.
But it is far from mushy, it unfolds absorbingly and it benefits from some masterful tonal mixology by Garrone.
Neorealism, magical realism and a grotesqueness suggestive of Fellini enhance credibility and outrageousness alike. The ending, which takes Luciano into surreal terrain, is superb.
In synch with all of this is Arena, who powerfully conveys in Luciano both a childlike awe and an emotional hunger.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen this impressive leading man in other Italian imports, it is because Arena is a prison inmate, jailed for his role in a mob killing. He’s part of a prison theatrical troupe. Surely, that’s better reality than all the stardust Luciano yearns for.