A true story within 'Reality' premise ★★★

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It's a miracle "Reality" works at all. Tales of ordinary people consumed by fame-mongering desires (in this case, the dream of joining the cast of "Grande Fratello," the Italian version of "Big Brother") have grown as common as reality TV itself. But director Matteo Garrone's unexpectedly touching treatment is worth seeing, even if you don't know the story of the casting of the central role.

We'll get to that in a few paragraphs; first, the film and the filmmaker. Garrone's previous work, the superb true-crime exploration of the Neapolitan underworld "Gomorrah," was a standout in its year (2008) both at the Cannes Film Festival and in general. Compared with that picture, "Reality," which won a major prize at last year's Cannes festival, is modest and familiar in its concerns. Yet Garrone's confident, gliding camera is something to admire. The director's frame always makes time and room for one more face, one more swirl of humanity before cutting to the next shot, and Garrone treats the Naples fishmonger auditioning for "Big Brother" not for cheap laughs but for seriocomic pathos that linger.

A born entertainer fond of donning a wig and makeup and doing drag, and no less fond of his large extended family, raspy-voiced charmer Luciano runs a fish stand with his cousin and pulls stunts on the side for profit or his own amusement. The first sequence brings Luciano into contact with a popular "Big Brother" personality. Egged on by his family ("You gotta go on TV, Luciano, my boy"), the fish seller tries out for the show in Naples. He gets a callback and travels to Cinecitta studios in Rome for another audition. It goes well. Luciano's avid, starry eyes are full of wonders to come.

When they don't come, at least the way he anticipates, the man slowly loses his grip on his life, his priorities, the humble realities he knows. Luciano craves something larger. "Hold on to your dreams!" says Enzo, the anointed celebrity at the start of "Reality." A hundred filmmakers worldwide have investigated the hollowness at the heart of such dreams, but Garrone's enough of a humanist to give Luciano and his family their dignity. Or, failing that, their vitality.

As Luciano, Garrone cast an unknown nonprofessional named Aniello Arena. He has an unusual resume: Currently, Arena is serving a life sentence without parole for the 1991 murder of three Neapolitan drug dealers, rivals of the clan that allegedly hired Arena to pull the trigger. While in prison Arena began acting in various productions, some of which toured widely. Garrone liked what he saw; he tried to hire Arena for a role in the film "Gomorrah," but prison officials denied Arena the chance to play, of all things, a mafioso killer on screen.

In the end Arena was allowed, years later, to take on the much bigger role of Luciano in "Reality" while serving his life sentence. He didn't win the best actor award last year at Cannes, but if he had, you would've heard no complaints from me. His performance is fine, true and moving. He is utterly unaware of the camera. The portrayal works whether or not you know the off-screen story.

"Reality" settles for a rather easy thesis: Wouldn't it be sad if this man only wanted to live the "Big Brother" life for a while? In filmic terms, however, co-writer and director Garrone argues the thesis well.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Reality' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating
(language)
Running time: 1:55; in Italian with English subtitles
Opens: Friday at Music Box Theatre

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