In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, David Foster Wallace addressed the illusory voyeurism of television, and the tension it places between seeming and being. We watch with an idea that what we’re seeing is happening, in some sense, and at the same time we are told how we should be. Wallace discussed the extent to which we as a culture were “in on” the illusions, and how television had evolved to exploit that very fact to strengthen its position, rather than let the curtains fall. Of course, the fact that he was writing about it at all indicated that we were catching on to that maneuver as well, and television would need a new tactic.
Writing in 1990, Wallace could have watched COPS, but he was a couple years short of the premiere of MTV’s The Real World, and well short of the rise of “reality” television as we now know it, which came in the late ’90s and early 2000s with Survivor and Big Brother. Here television adopted a new pretense of truthfulness, which Wallace could have predicted people would quickly see through to recognize that such shows still depended on the idea of a performance for an audience, even if they weren’t actually scripted to at least some extent. And he could have predicted that such self-congratulation would be part of reality television’s effectiveness, making us believe that we’re one step ahead of it, when in fact we’re ignoring the really important subtext: these people may be coached, but they’re still real people, just like you, and you could be them. You don’t have to be a starlet to be famous, you just have to want to be seen. And while the one-way-glass effect of television is a big part of its appeal to many people, there are still plenty who want to be watched as much as they want to watch.
I can’t say that if Wallace had recognized this development and decided to incorporate it into his fiction the result would have turned out like Matteo Garrone’s Reality, but it would certainly pair well with this film.
Luciano (Aniello Arena) certainly likes to be watched. He’s a gregarious, garrulous guy, well liked in the market where he runs his fishmonger’s stand, and in his family for his funny female impersonations he puts on at parties. But he and his wife (Loredana Simioli) are only just keeping things together, it seems, even with the extra cash from a grey-market business Luciano runs on the side with his partner, Michele (Nando Paone).
Things start to change when Luciano meets Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a former contestant on Grande Fratello — Italy’s version of Big Brother — who has become a minor celebrity just for lasting 116 days, not even winning the contest. If he can do it, why not Luciano? The initial audition and a follow-up at Cinecitta seem to go well, and the idea of being on the show starts to dominate Luciano’s entire life.
Despite the fact that this is a downward spiral, Garrone’s film is hysterical. No small credit is due to Arena’s performance, but Garrone manages to always keep us at just enough of a distance that we keep laughing at Luciano’s antics rather than weeping for him. The story is a darkly comedic fable, with the fairy-tale tone assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s score, clearly channeling Danny Elfman.
The tone reminds us that this is all make-believe, playing out on a visual music-box, which we wind up for our own entertainment. This isn’t really happening. That’s not us on screen. We couldn’t get sucked in like that. Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.