Matteo Garrone’s Reality, awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, critiques today’s fascination with reality television. To its credit, the film does so without resorting to an easy contrast between good traditional Italian and bad global media culture. Here a Napoli fishmonger’s family looks almost as fantastic as celebrity wannabes on the Italian version of Big Brother that sends Luciano (Aniello Arena) into pop stardom.
That is, Luciano never seems quite “ordinary,” in part because he’s played by Arena, a former mafia hit man turned theatre actor, still in prison serving a 20-year sentence. Garrone met Arena while filming his mafia saga Gomorrah, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008. As Luciano, the actor is at once broad and jarring: Luciano sells fish by day, performs a drag act at weddings, and conducts scams by night, using old ladies to resell a mechanical pasta cooker that looks like a panda bear. After this cooking contraption, he turns to elaborate lamps and white armchairs, which he eventually gives away, Luciano, his flamboyant wife Maria (Loredana Simioli), and his loquacious relatives and neighbors are a show unto themselves well before he tries out for the Big Brother.
Still, Luciano is reluctant: he auditions for the show at the local mall only at the insistence of his kids. He’s a pragmatic family man, possessed of a prodigious charm he’s long since learned how to use to get what he wants. But he’s not exactly prepared when he gets to the second audition, and Luciano’s own life begins to resemble reality TV.
First, convinced that he’ll get on the show, he sells his fish store. Then, he starts imagining that every stranger is a spy sent by the show’s selection committee. To impress these spies, he decides to become a model citizen, but overdoes it, feeding a lavish dinner to the homeless man he earlier chased off and eventually selling his family’s furniture—much to Maria’s chagrin. He imagines every encounter to be with the show’s producers, even when he accosts two nuns in a church who give him their stock spiritual advice, “Don’t give up.”
Reality is a comedic departure from the mafia theme for which Garrone is best know, but it’s not particularly funny. Moreover, its themes—the crudity of celebrity culture and the corruption of reality TV—are not new. As a meditation on self-imposed surveillance, the film is more original. Luciano only escapes his imaginary watchers when he finally sneaks on to the shooting stage and gets a place, albeit temporarily, in the bright shiny world of the reality show. This false experience is, in its way, real.
In the Fog
If Reality examines the moral choices that emerge as Luciano grapples with his newfound celebrity, V tumane (In the Fog), directed by Sergei Loznitsa, comes at such choices from another direction. Based on a novel by well-known Belarussian writer Vasil Bykov, the winner of this year’s FIPRESCI prize at Cannes is a personal movie about World War II. Loznitsa specifically denied any intended political message at the Festival press conference, though this seems hard to believe, given his previous film My Joy. This film, which competed at Cannes last year, is upfront about its dystopian view of politics and social life in a post-Soviet Russian province. The new movie appears amid a swirl of efforts by governments throughout Europe to rewrite the history of WWII, thus its personal view is a political choice in itself.
In the Fog begins with a failed attempt at sabotage in an Nazi-occupied territory somewhere in the Belorussian or Ukraininan countryside. After four railroad workers are arrested and three of them executed, the German commander Grossmeier (Vlad Ivanov) asks the fourth worker, Souchenia (Vladimir Svirski), to become an informer. Souchenia, an idealized moral center here, had initially refused to sabotage the railway for fear of German retribution on civilians. He also refuses to serve as a spy, but is released anyway. Soon, two Soviet partisans come to execute him as a traitor: Burov (Vlad Abashin), an angry brute, and Voitek (Sergei Kolesov), a two-faced coward. Much of the film is composed as long slow takes, following the three men walk in the woods through the night, first to the place of Souchenia’s execution, and then, after a surprise German attack, to the rebels’ hideout.
Bykov wrote his novel while World War II partisans were still generally perceived as models of patriotism and virtue, and his protagonist’s internal monologue reflects the writer’s respect for those who choose to fight the German enemy. Today, after the Soviet Union has collapsed and researchers have been mining its archives, many partisans have increasingly been revealed as the henchmen of ruthless Soviet government than homegrown freedom fighters. We might guess the truth lies somewhere in between these two views. But Loznitsa’s film, ostensibly nonpolitical, follows to the letter the currently popular politics of history. With no internal monologue in the film, no honorable partisans hidden in the woods, and no righteous political side to choose in the conflict, Souchenia’s decision not to fight, even for his life, becomes a private, and the only moral, choice.
In the Fog