Matteo Garrone, Reality, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes. Luciano and Maria (Aniello Arena and Loredana Simioli).

THE TONE AND THRUST of Matteo Garrone’s Reality could not be less like those of Gomorrah (2008), his unflinching portrait of the Neapolitan crime world. There is a genuine sweetness in the new film that belies the fate of its protagonist, whose slow descent into a gentle madness is almost indiscernible. Luciano (Aniello Arena), a working-class fish merchant who moonlights in crooked resales of kitchen merchandise, seems relatively happy in his modest life with his wife (Loredana Simioli) and children. Everybody knows everybody in the apartment complex where they live, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Indeed, the comforts and drawbacks of community life are as central to the film’s sociology as they are to its style, the latter no better illustrated than by Marco Onorato’s fluid, peripatetic-like cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s literally enchanting original music, both qualities evident in the opening shot. An aerial view of Naples, Vesuvius looming in the background, passes over the populated city before closing in on a Cinderella-like coach moving through the narrow streets to a glitzy wedding complex, attuned to the whimsical chimes of Desplat’s score.

Weddings bring out the barely suppressed clown in Luciano. To everyone’s amusement, he hoots it up in drag with Enzo—an inflated media celebrity of the hit television show Big Brother, who’s been hired to boost the faux sincerity of the confectionary atmosphere. A poignant shot of Luciano holding his young daughter while gazing longingly at Enzo’s departing plane hints just enough of his sadly pedestrian dreams to motivate the rest of the story. Everyone encourages Luciano to try his luck at getting on Big Brother. When he does, he is so convinced that he has wowed the producers and is so enthusiastically applauded by his neighbors that he begins a journey into unreality from which he never recovers, and which the film traces with an artful fusion of neorealism and make-believe.

Resembling a marriage of early (I Vitelloni [1953]) and late (Amarcord [1973]) Fellini, the film’s play with the line between social realism and subjective fantasy is beautifully captured by Onorato’s camerawork, sustaining the spatial and temporal continuity of everyday Neapolitan life, while simultaneously embodying Luciano’s impulses to slip beyond its boundaries. This tension is inscribed in the guileless affability of Arena’s face and body language, recalling the grand tradition of Italian cinema’s naïfs. When the camera is not moving, crosscutting stresses Luciano’s difference from his neighbors, as in the scene when they debate whether the producers of Big Brother have sent spies to check on his life. Orwellian connotations abound when, suddenly, every unfamiliar face is cause for suspicion even as it upholds Luciano’s belief that he is still a contender. To impress these imaginary observers, he resorts to random acts of charity, giving away furniture to the less fortunate as his wife tries to rein him in. While watching Big Brother on television, he is convinced that a performer has stolen his dance techniques. Even a cricket on the wall assumes prognosticating import.

Eventually, a friend suggests Luciano seek guidance from a local priest, which leads to a pilgrimage to Rome. Though Garrone avoids simplistic parallels, it is hard not to wonder whether the mass assembly of the faithful that Luciano attends reflects just another form of delusion. Still determined, however, Luciano escapes the crowd and finds his way to the Cinecittà studios where Big Brother is produced, climbing fences and walls to sneak into the fabulous television complex. He gazes unobserved through various two-way glass mirrors as the show’s chosen participants go about exercising, showering, and lying around. Stealthily entering the chamber, he quietly stretches out unseen on a lounge chair. The mundane nature of the place and the people seems to escape him. But while his childlike smile and his slightly demonic laughter suggest that he has arrived at Never Never Land, the camera pulls up and away to another aerial view, this time of a nighttime Naples, reducing Luciano to a brightly lit box in the frame that becomes smaller and smaller and less and less distinguishable from a padded cell. (This ending is more than a little ironic in that Arena is presently serving a prison sentence for murder.) At the fade-out of the shot, REALITY glitters across the screen like a marquee. Avoiding the shrill and the obvious, Garrone’s fable is as charming as it is unnerving, an image of the media as a contemporary Oz whose allure is predictably hollow but no less insidious.

Tony Pipolo

Reality opens Friday, March 15 in New York and Friday, March 22 in Los Angeles.