I was fortunate enough to see this film at its world premiere at last year’s Cannes
Film Festival (where it won the Grand Prix – or second prize). A red-carpet, tuxedo and
bow-tie affair, I was squished high up in the gods in the packed 2200 seat Lumiere
Cinema on a balmy evening. I have to admit that it was hard to stay awake and, whilst
Matteo Garrone’s film was not entirely to blame, it is never easy going – a meandering
satire on self-delusion or perhaps a Fellini-inspired fairytale about obsession. Either
way it’s long (115 minutes) and sometimes indulgent – a shrewd commentary on the desire
for fame, fortune and reality television.
Centre stage is Luciano (Aniello Arena), extraverted family man, con-artist and Napolitan fishmonger, who appears in the extravagant opening wedding scene as an entertainer in drag, only to be upstaged by real celebrity Enzo (Rafaele Ferrante), a star from Italy’s Big Brother. Convinced by his family to try out for the show in a local mall, Luciano is noticed and summoned to Rome for a second round of auditions.
After lining up with thousands of hopefuls, he returns home and waits for news, now completely obsessed with the idea of joining the show and finding fame. From here an enigmatic and tragic-comic journey begins, one full of loss, paranoia, hope and the eerie madness that comes with delusion and a system that endlessly promises and dreams, knowing it can rarely, if ever, deliver.
Clearly a commentary on the trashy madness that has become Italian television, Garrone creates the story world as kitsch shopping-mall fantasy. It’s a place where there’s little sense of the authentic and where, like a child in a candy store day-dream, Luciano has so little sense of purpose that you can understand why he is drawn to the ultimate fantasy that is screened each night on television. And whilst it’s a testament to Garrone’s power as a director that he so expertly evokes the listless mood that comes with perpetual television’s “reality”, this also becomes the film’s weak spot – a languid energy that haunts the film’s narrative and makes the second half feel ever more unfocused.
Arena – in his first feature film – is highly watchable as the increasingly sad protagonist, but the film belongs to director Garrone and his design team, who create a disconcerting and just off-centre reality for Arena’s portrayal of an obsessed consumer of desire.