Matteo Garrone: The Neo-Unrealist
Published on June 19th, 2012 | by John Bleasdale0
Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a fishmonger living in a crumbling tenement building in Naples surrounded by his extended family. It’s a good enough life, working at his stall and making extra money with scams, but to please his children, Luciano auditions for “Big Brother.” At first, he thinks nothing of it, but when a phone call summons him to Rome for a follow-up audition the idea that fame and riches are around the corner causes his grip on reality to become unstuck.
“Reality,” Matteo Garrone’s follow up to “Gomorrah” (2008), split critics when it premiered at Cannes this year, but managed—perhaps under the sway of jury chairman, and fellow Italian, Nanni Moretti—to win the director his second Grand Prix. Critics seemed disappointed that the expected satiric savaging of Reality TV culture was neither funny nor savage enough, and wasn’t it all a bit old hat? The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writes that the film “is concerned to tell us what we already knew.” However, “Reality” isn’t really a comedy, despite the director’s own pronouncements. Rather, Garrone has created a cautionary fable which evades easy generic assignment. It is the latest installment in a continuing investigation into the shifting realities of obsession, survival, and self-destruction in contemporary Italian society.
The Roman director won his first award, the Sacher d’Oro—incidentally an award established by Nanni Moretti—for his short film “Silhouette” (1996), which that same year was incorporated into his first feature-length film “Terra di Mezzo,” an anthology examining three immigrant communities in and around Rome. From the subject matter, a grim piece of Ken Loach-like social realism seems on the cards, but the film avoids bland truisms and allows the strangeness of conflicting realities to come through. Garrone’s second film “Ospite” (1998) follows the travails of two young Albanian immigrants, sharing a room in a wealthy Roman suburb. Initially, the film promises a denunciation of social exclusion and xenophobia as the boys kick around a railway station failing to chat up a couple of girls before sloping off to work. But Garrone sidesteps the storylines that can make such films goodhearted but clichéd: the lads don’t suffer from exploitation, aren’t reduced to a life of crime, and in their neighbors they find something like community. Of course, things aren’t all rosy—there is a tangible precariousness to the immigrant experience—but Garrone is interested in his characters as individuals, rather than in issues.
In 2002, “L’imbalsamatore” (“The Embalmer”) brought Garrone his first major critical success. Set in a wintery and determinedly ugly Naples of high-rise flats and litter-strewn beaches, the film tells the story of Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), the eponymous embalmer, a dwarf with a particular skill in taxidermy. He befriends Valerio (Valerio Manzillo), a tall young man who’s fascinated by Peppino’s work and whom Peppino recruits as an apprentice. However, Peppino’s longing for Valerio is transformed into obsessive jealousy when Valerio gets involved with Deborah (Elisabetta Rochetti), a girl from the North.
Although in the naturalistic acting of its marginalized characters trace elements of social realism can be detected, Garrone—no doubt influenced by his own training as a painter and by the work of that other painter-director Peter Greenaway—begins to impose a visually striking style. With a fresh confidence, his camera pans across filthy beaches, or in a swooping crane shot reveals Peppino’s vanity as he publicly unveils a stuffed bull. But the camera can still be claustrophobically intimate, sometimes peering from behind a character’s earlobe. And a bold color palette of reds and greens also emerges. There is artfulness to this realism, mimicking Peppino’s own activity of bringing the lifeless back to a semblance of life and, as in “Reality,” the distorted notions of the characters are reflected in the fable-like pairing of Valerio, as the gentle giant, with Peppino’s complex dwarf.
Almost a companion piece, “Primo Amore” (“First Love”) is a similar case study of obsession, but here the film feels more grounded in a pathology rather than in fairy tale oppositions. Vittorio, a goldsmith (played by co-writer Vitaliano Trevisan), has an unhealthy obsession with the body shape of Sonia (Michela Cescon), his new girlfriend. Ultimately, Garrone is retracing familiar territory (albeit now in the North of Italy) of destructive obsession. Vittorio and Peppino are both meticulous craftsmen who become unable to see past their obsessive passions. Their attempts to manipulate reality to fit their own perceptions end up destroying, which to some extent is mirrored by Luciano’s trajectory in “Reality.”
Garrone’s next film, however, marked his arrival on the international scene, garnering awards and commercial success. Based on Roberto Saviano’s fantastically brave work of investigative journalism (which earned him status as a true Italian hero along with a lifetime of witness protection), “Gomorrah” recounts the operations of La Sistema, a.k.a. the Camorra, the less famous (but far more deadly and powerful) Naples-based crime organization. The book delves into its economic infrastructure as well as the politics of its recent warring. Garrone eschews the more dramatic and conventional story of crime bosses at war, the tit-for-tat killings etc., in order to concentrate on the ground-level view of the teenaged recruits, the aging dogsbody, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), and the foot soldiers who try to survive in its midst. Orbiting them is a businessman, Franco (Tony Servillo), perhaps the most dangerous and certainly most toxic development of organized crime, shipping industrial waste to the South and burying it wherever he can buy or rent space, regardless of environmental considerations or legality. Garrone feels no need to tie the stories together: these are separate individuals with their own problems and strategies for coping. The two rebels who stand outside of and against La Sistema are not crusading journalists or fearless cops, but rather two boneheaded kids, Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) who see themselves as cinematic outlaws. We first see them in a dilapidated villa re-enacting “Scarface”: Ciro wears colorful Al Pacino shirts throughout the film. Despite its gritty realization of a Naples that saw the Berlusconi government of the time bitterly regretting the film’s grants, Garrone’s vision is not hopeless: several characters walk away, albeit at personal cost to their ambitions and livelihood. But it is Ciro and Marco’s inability to distinguish their fantasies from reality which proves fatal.
In “Reality,” Luciano becomes the latest Garrone character to fall victim to a fantastic version of reality. It is an unreality of overblown expectations: from zero to hero, poverty to riches, wooden toy to real boy as represented by the lure of Reality TV. However, this isn’t the result of an individual mania as in “L’imbalsamatore” or “Primo Amore,” but rather is in the air of a city which too readily partakes of its own myth. The film begins with a swooping aerial shot that takes us down into a Naples street where a fairy tale wedding—a cross between “Shrek” and Fellini—is taking place. Luciano does a turn in drag to the delight of his family and the annoyance of the celeb-for-hire Enzo, a vacuous idiot made local hero via “Big Brother.” Waiting for the outcome of his own audition, Luciano becomes convinced that spies from the show are checking up on him and so he turns charitable. As the mania continues and Luciano becomes alienated from his own family, the only help his friends can offer comes via the Church. However, the Church itself is culpable, having spent centuries preparing the ground for such credulousness. The moral surveillance of God is easily replaced by the twenty-four-hour intrusion of the cameras; the longing for a change in fortune is now satisfied by being saved by fame; and the Big Brother house becomes a reclaimed Eden, furnished by IKEA.
Although “Reality” is unlikely to match the international success of “Gomorrah,” Matteo Garrone has proved himself a dominant power in Italian filmmaking. Unmoved by the call of Hollywood recently answered by his compatriots Paolo Sorrentino and Gabriele Muccino, Garrone has surrounded himself with a faithful crew of collaborators and has consistently created examinations, dissections, and, in the case of “Reality,” an almost magical fable about the Italian reality, or, more accurately, unreality.