The 56th Annual BFI London Film Festival opened this Wednesday with the gala screening of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, but my top recommendation for this week hails from Italy, and from director Matteo Garrone, previously known for his intense drama films First Love and Gomorrah.
Reality, which starts out as a simple story of a man auditioning for a place in the Italian Big Brother house, is definitely the most impressive film that I've seen at the festival so far, despite some stiff competition from the likes of Zaytoun and Robot and Frank.
Tragicomedy is a tone that isn't attempted too often by writers, and those that attempt it are rarely completely successfully. It is easy to write the characters as either too unsympathetic or caricaturesque, so that the laughter which ensues from their situations remains light-hearted no matter how terrible their situation. Just as frequently things seem to go in the other direction, and the story becomes so grim that no one feels like laughing. Seeing tragicomedy pulled off perfectly – as it has been by novelists like Vladimir Nabokov and Bernard Malamud, and filmmakers like the Coen Brothers – is always a delight, and Reality is a film that hits the genre right on the nose.
The film begins slowly and gets better exponentially as it progresses. The first half hour is somewhat underwhelming, though it successfully establishes the framework of an extended Neapolitan family as they gather for a family wedding, with family entertainer Luciano dressing up in drag and ambushing the visiting Big Brother "celebrity" who has stopped by to say a few words for the happy couple (and several other happy couples enjoying their reception at the same venue).
Luciano is played by newcomer Aniello Arena, who plays the role with an endearing and charismatic sincerity, keeping the performance subtle even with the ridiculous turns that his character takes.
Despite an initial apathy towards the possibility of getting on the show, Luciano is soon whipped up in his family's excitement – an excitement which is compounded when he gets called back for a second audition that seems to go splendidly. Thereafter convinced that he will get "the call" any day, Luciano begins to suspect that Big Brother may really be watching him. When he starts noticing strangers in his neighbourhood who appear to be watching him, he becomes convinced that the Big Brother judges are assessing his moral integrity before inviting him onto the show, and as a result begins correcting his behaviour to be more charitable and loving to his neighbours.
Reality walks the line between charmingly sweet and slightly uncomfortable, but it walks it well and Luciano's descent into a skewed reality is fascinating to watch. There is a great wealth of commentary to be found, particularly a breakdown of religious or spiritual faith as seen through the lens of celebrity worship. Despite numerous instances of borderline surreal imagery, the narrative and dialogue flows very naturally, with a shooting style that favours long and often intricately choreographed steadicam shots. The chemistry between all of the actors is strong and they are genuinely convincing as the loving but overbearing community for whom Luciano is hoping to act as a celebrity emissary.
A beautifully shot and masterfully crafted observation of human nature, Reality is definitely my pick of the festival so far. There are still seats available for the October 14th screening, and you can buy tickets from the BFI website.