Matteo Garrone, director of satirical drama Reality - interview

Matteo Garrone, director of satirical drama Reality - interview

The filmmaker behind astounding Mafia portrait Gomorrah turns his eye to reality TV

For the follow-up to his acclaimed Mafia drama Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone has cast an Italian gangster in the lead part. Tom Dawson arranges a sit-down to find out more

It was thanks to his theatre critic father that Italian film director Matteo Garrone first came across the work of the Fortezza theatre company, based at a maximum-security prison in Tuscany. ‘I used to go with my dad to see lots of plays,’ recalls the 44-year-old director, best known for his acclaimed 2008 Camorra portrait Gomorrah. ‘Some of my favourite productions were put on by Fortezza, with Aniello Arena, who was serving a life sentence for Mafia-related murders, as a leading actor in the company. I wanted to use him in Gomorrah, but because of his previous connections to organised crime, the authorities wouldn’t allow it. I thought he would be perfect for the lead role in Reality.’

Despite the presence of former Camorrista hitman Arena, the magic realist fable Reality (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year), is a very different film, tonally and visually, to its predecessor. Its protagonist Luciano (Arena), a fish-seller and petty scam artist in contemporary Naples, is encouraged by his wife and three young children to try out for reality TV series Grande Fratello (the Italian equivalent of Big Brother). ‘It starts out as a joke,’ explains Garrone, ‘but gradually it becomes something much darker and much more existential. He starts to pretend to be someone else, to build a new character and to lose himself in that manufactured identity.’

Garrone places Reality in a tradition of popular Italian cinema stretching back decades to Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, in which Anna Magnani’s mother pushes her daughter into a child talent contest at Cinecitta studios in Rome, and to Federico Fellini’s 1952 debut feature The White Sheik, where a honeymooning woman romantically yearns for the star of her favourite photo novel.

‘That film talks about the gulf between the world of dreams and the real life of marriage,’ he continues. ‘The tragedy for me in my film is that Luciano wants to escape from his domestic world, where he is genuinely loved. And it’s not just him: his family and local community are seduced by this system. I wanted my story to be a journey around the contrast of Italian society, and which doesn’t judge its characters.’

Reality’s impressive opening sequence aerially follows a horse-drawn carriage making its way to an opulent hotel for an ultra-kitsch wedding celebration. The scene was inspired by a location the filmmaker and his regular director of photography Marco Onorato found nearly 15 years ago when researching a documentary about Naples’s most celebrated wedding photographer, Oreste Pipolo. ‘What was important in Reality was to find settings that were both believable and slightly unreal,’ adds Garrone. ‘We wanted to set up a contrast between a melancholic side of Naples, which is connected to Luciano’s family, and the present day city, where the locations like the Aquapark and the shopping malls feel like artificial sets.’

Although Arena was allowed out of custody on a daily basis to make the film, Garrone acknowledges that having to inform the authorities 48 hours in advance of exactly where they would be filming proved a hindrance in terms of responding to changing weather conditions. Arena’s naturalistic performance has been widely praised, however, not least by one of Italy’s finest stage and screen actors Toni Servillo. ‘Toni rang me up after seeing Reality and he said to me, “I believed in the character from the first minute to the end”. That was a real compliment.’

Reality is on limited release from Fri 22 Mar.

REALITY Official UK Trailer (in cinemas March 22)


  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • Italy
  • 1h 55min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Matteo Garrone
  • Written by: Matteo Garrone
  • Cast: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone
  • UK release: 22 March 2013

Luciano (Arena) is a likeable Neapolitan fish-seller determined to make it onto the Italian version of Big Brother. More stylised than Garrone’s earlier Gomorrah, it’s a powerful metaphor for Berlusconi-era Italy, and Arena, a convicted former Mafia hitman who discovered acting in prison, is compelling.