Back in May, the Italian director Matteo Garrone gave an interview to Variety about his new project, a movie called The Tale of Tales. He had just begun shooting the film, which is based on a 1636 book of fairy tales by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, after a painstaking search location from Sicily all the way to Friuli. Which, fine. Directors from Europe are after all free to mine the rich cultural and geographic holdings of their countries, Still, going all the way back to folklore is something we might expect from Alexander Sokhurov or maybe Guillermo del Toro, certainly not from Matteo Garrone, who has up to now seemed like the meanest motherfucker alive in realist cinema.
Garrone's big hit, Gomorrah, which swept film festivals around the world in 2008, begins with a gang murder carried out in a tanning salon and concludes with the image of the corpses of two boys carried to the edge of a deserted beach and dumped, by a bulldozer, in the surf. In between, five stories form a picture of almost unbelievable poverty and hopelessness as the outskirts of Naples tear themelves apart under the influence of its latter-day mob overlords, the Camorra. The Camorra, according to Garrone and Roberto Saviano, who wrote the source novel for the movie, are not only violent and cruel but increasingly inextricable from the world economy—a title notes at the end that the Camorra clans were the largest organized contributor to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. So Gomorrah is a pretty fulminant piece of social criticism, a real work of consciousness-raising about globalization and its attendant woes, and it's a surprise to find that Garrone seems to be abandoning politics completely.
In the Variety interview, Garrone's very vocabulary is suspicious. He goes into some detail, in particular, on the "fabular" quality of his work. "Fabular" is not really a signal word for political commitment, nor is it one I would think of when I was trying to describe Gomorrah; it is, however, Italo Calvino's official epithet-along with "inventive" and "delightful," it's one of the words that Anglo-American critics use to patronize Calvino in relation to his big brothers Borges and Nabokov. Garrone, in fact, name drops Calvino, who of course had an affinity for folk tales and who apparently described Giambattista Basile as "a deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare." So what's going on in Garrone's career right now? Is he a realist hardbitten going soft? An ossifying radical? An overpraised director indulging himself? It's instructive, of course, to look at Calvino's own artistic trajectory—Calvino did, after all, begin literary life as a dedicated communist and chronicler of the Italian resistance—but to answer the question we really have to widen the field of criticism to look at Garrone's most recent movie, which came out in 2012, and at Italian cinema as a whole.
I pointed out in my last article about Italian movies that no other national cinema in the world is so concerned with its own mythology. You can go back and read the post if you want. Keeping this in mind, though, and keeping also in mind that this is the country of neorealism and its long, long legacy, I trust you to understand that it's a pretty daring maneuver, dialectically speaking, to title your movie Reality, which is what Garrone has done.
Reality is the story of a Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano, a charming, hardworking man, popular in his community but desperately poor, supporting his children with help from a smuggling business That his wife coordinates through her job at a local shopping mall. His living situation is a bizarre, postmodern amalgamation, an apartment in a rotting nineteenth-century tenement full of bright, cheap plastic furniture from the mall. As a favor to his kids, he auditions for Big Brother, and then, when he gets a callback, sinks into obsession with disturbing, pathetic speed. His perspective on life shifts drastically. Suddenly everything in Naples is speaking to him—customers from Rome are undercover TV people monitoring his behavior, beggars are wearing wires, and even celebrities are in town to watch him. The world is no longer simply a place to exist; it's a living organism with a mind made of pure judgment, and that mind is for the moment trained on him. Fixated on earning the approval of his newfound judge, he begins to give his possessions to the poor; he sells his fish stand; he sinks money into expensive clothes and, finally, when it's impossible to avoid the truth that he is not going to be on the show, he becomes catatonic.
Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, an ex-Camorrista serving a life sentence for murder, and most of the movie was shot on location in a Neapolitan tenement. These two features, location shooting and nonprofessional actors, are of course the hallmarks of neorealist mise-en-scene, and considering them alongside the title I think it's clear what this movie is gunning for: neorealism itself, the sacred cow of Italian cinema, and all of its stylistic descendants.
Anglo-American readings of neorealism have trouble with the term "realism." Our understanding of the term is contaminated by the "analytic" realism of 19th-century France, a style epitomized by Émile Zola and his approach to literature as a kind of science—variables care fully controlled, laboratory conditions maintained, causes and effects scrupulously recorded. Neorealism, ironically, follows in an older tradition. Italian art in the 19th century was inflected by a pretty idiosyncratic reading of Hegel, focusing inordinately on idealism and subjectivity and the world-spirit in order to be ideologically palatable in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Materialists like Zola were therefore unwelcome. Mussolini, obviously, doubled down on this. As a result, what Rossellini and De Sica and the first generation of neorealists had to refer to when they approached "realism" was not Zola and Flaubert but a neoclassical relict, a style that ultimately came down from Aristotle. With certain modifications, this bloomed into neorealism, a relaism peculiarly concerned with the mind.
The analytic approach is still current, especially on film and especially in the era of globalization—just look at Syriana, Traffic, The Wire, The Class, or, if you really want to, Babel. All of these, to some extent, show us society from butterfly to hurricane. Since the 19th century, the influence of this approach to realism has become so pervasive that it's tempting to apply it to neorealism. But on close analysis it rarely holds up. If Zola (or David Simon) had directed Bicycle Thieves, we would meet the corrupt officials who built its hero Ricci's house, the absent father who drove the eponymous thieves into poverty, and so on. Bicycle Thieves instead strikes its main character cruelly and randomly with disaster, and the story that unfolds thereafter takes place in a Rome so dreamlike it's practically a De Chirico. Ricci and his son repeatedly turn a corner and find themelves on the other side of the city, and wherever they go there are people whispering messages, metaphors, prophecies, in some cases shouting them. Neorealism was, with few exceptions, a fantastic, fabular movement.
Critics who are not in touch with this sensibility have made the mistake again and again of attacking Italian directors whenthey start to indulge in dreamy aestheticization. It's not just foreign critics, either: Italian Marxist luminaries like Luigi Chiarini and Guido Aristarco wrote polemic after polemic against Rossellini and Fellini when they thought those directors had let their art split from their politics—they had abandoned analysis, they had abandoned the plight of the common people. In reality Rossellini and Fellini always been open about the fact that, for them, politics was a subcategory of aesthetics. Cesare Zavattini, the neorealist mouthpiece who wrote Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., said, "In America, lack of subjects for films causes a crisis, but with us such a crisis is impossible. One can not be short of themes while there is still plenty or reality. " For the neorealists, reality contained themes, which is to say that themes were real things, as real and almost as tangible as physical objects. You could point a camera at them and there they were. The world was a conscious, judging, thinking organism, the ongoing work of some author or body of authors, speaking a language that was abstruse but finally intelligible. This tendency persists through thirty years of Italian cinema, even in the iconoclasts—Pier Paolo Pasolini's essay "A Cinema of Poetry" concerns itself with exactly how, from a semiotic point of view, we read meaning into the world. You'd be forgiven for thinking this sounded deeply Catholic, or on the other hand deeply paranoid. Or both. If so, you're starting to see the track of thinking that Reality is following in and, I think, concluding.
Because the biggest difference in sensibility between Reality and its neorealist forebears is that Reality does not pretend to be naïve. Old neorealism always needed to seem innocent and trusting for its points to go over, but Reality is free to be as erudite and as polemical as it likes. (The big joke of the movie is Lacanian—what rhymes with "Big Brother?") Its obvious soft target is reality TV, which it sets up as the godhead of conservative idealism: an art form eager to impose themes on its content, to collapse its shows, who are, after all, real people, into types, into winner and loser, in and out, and to invite the viewer to judge them all. Its forays into socio-religious critique (there's a scene in Reality in which some nuns think Luciano is asking about Christ when in fact he's asking about two TV people who are in their church) let it use this as a metaphor for Catholicism's stranglehold on Italian culture, putting it into the honorable tradition of anti-religious cinema. But its metafictional machinery allow it to make the much broader critique that each entry in the canon of Italian cinema is poisoned by solipsism.
This all comes together in the incredible final sequence of the movie, in which Luciano, finally out of his mind, sneaks into the Big Brother house in Rome, slinks along the one-way mirrors and recording equipment in something like a trance, and finally slumps on a backstage couch, giggling blissfully, as the camera pulls back steadily, higher and higher, revealing nothing but blackness outside the annex. It pulls up impossibly high, until you can see all of Rome, and there is not a single light, anywhere, except the light from the Big Brother house. The whole world is black except the sliver animated by Luciano's unhinged consciousness. There are no points of reference, nothing to hold onto, except a giggling idiot watching live reality TV through a one-way mirror. The credits roll.
Reality, then, with its blunter-than-blunt title and its all-devouring satire, is a reductio ad absurdum of the neorealist project, burning everybody from Rossellini to Scola down into pig iron. Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty considers the crushing weight of the canon, but Reality actively wants to destroy it. Neorealism is, ultimately, fantasy just by a different name, and given that, Garrone's new career move is quite easy to understand. Why multiply entities beyond necessity? Kill the canon and simplify. A motor car is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.