Matteo Garrone is no stranger to the grim. His breakout film--meaning the one that got U.S. attention--was 2008's Gomorrah, a harrowing glimpse into the innerworkings of the mafia in Naples. In Reality (Il Grande Fratello), Garrone revisits the distinct people and vibe of Naples with Big Brother (known as Il Grande Fratello in Italy, and also the first reality show to make its way to said country) as the backdrop for the world of fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena), a happy-go-lucky sort who seems content enough as a family man in spite of his financial struggles. His simple life is interrupted when one of the former stars of Il Grande Fratello, Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), makes an appearance at a wedding reception where Luciano and his family are also guests.
Known for putting on campy drag acts (it's Italy, there is no underestimating the pervasiveness of camp), Luciano is encouraged by his niece to put on a different act besides his usual "bag lady" fare. Once in the reception hall, Luciano comes face to face with Enzo. Enamored of his celebrity status, Luciano and his daughter run after him before he leaves the next wedding reception in a different part of the venue that he was booked to make an appearance at. The seeds of irony are planted early on in the film as Enzo bandies the catch phrase "Never give up! Never let go of your dreams!" Initially, it is Luciano's children that are most interested in the show, especially when they discover that the casting interviews are taking place at the mall in their town. Begging their mother, Maria (Loredana Simioli), to coerce Luciano into coming to the mall, she calls him to tell him about the auditions.
In the midst of conducting Naples-style business that can essentially be likened to a pyramid scheme, Luciano insists he is too busy to get away, but ultimately can't resist the temptation. By the time he reaches the mall, the auditions have ended, but seeing that Enzo is there, he presumes to ask him for the favor of letting him get in front of the camera anyway just so he doesn't disappoint his kids. Because they have met once before and Enzo vaguely remembers it--mainly thanks to Luciano's detailed description of where and how they met--Luciano is allowed to audition. A few days later, he is called back for a second audition in Rome, fueling the fire of his previously dormant excitement. His family, too, is equally as elated, choosing of course to accompany him to Cinecitta Studios in Rome in their most ostentatious Neapolitan garb.
After his audition, in which he talks to a psychologist for an hour, Luciano is consumed with the belief that he will be chosen. However, when the show begins to air without him, Luciano’s certainty that he will be picked still doesn’t waver after the announcer assures that two more cast members have yet to be chosen. Even his family—apart from his wife—encourages him to keep believing. One day, as Luciano is angrily yelling at a homeless man who tries to steal a fish, he notices a strange man at the marketplace next to his fish stand. Instantly assuming that the man is a spy from Il Grande Fratello, Luciano amends his ways to start acting more benevolent toward the poor—so much so that he starts to give away most of his family’s possessions.
This is the final straw for his wife, who becomes so enraged by his foolishness and stupidity that she leaves him to his own devices. Unfazed, Luciano continues to perform the same "kindness" to strangers, even going so far as to ask some random old Italian ladies in a cemetery if he should keep going in order to gain entry into the house. Assuming that he is referring to the house of God, one of the old ladies asserts, "Death is the only problem without a remedy, everything else will work itself out."
Convinced that the old ladies are an omen, Luciano persists in obsessively watching the show while simultaneously acting as though he himself is being watched. With nothing to occupy his time since he sold his fish stand (thinking he wouldn’t have time to run it due to the months he would be gone for Il Grande Fratello filming), Luciano goes a bit off the deep end, to say the least. He even points out to his family that there is a cricket on the ceiling—a creature that had never been in the house before until now—meaning it has to be a hidden camera. Maria ultimately returns to Luciano, unable to see him suffer without her help. Although she takes him to see a doctor, the only solution he can offer is that Luciano will recover once the show is over (but Maria isn’t quite convinced).
Acquiescing to the outreach of the community, Luciano starts going to church more frequently, getting so involved as to start volunteering at a homeless shelter and even going on a pilgrimage to Rome to pray with a massive crowd of Catholics. We soon learn that Luciano’s true motive in going to Rome was to sneak onto the Cinecitta lot and make his way onto the set of Il Grande Fratello. At this point, his delusion is complete and profound as he walks through the house gawking wondrously at each cast member—none of whom seem to notice his existence. Making his way to the backyard, Luciano begins laughing to himself, as though he has somehow proven something in spite of the fact that no one is aware of his presence. Finally sitting back and lying on a chaise lounge, Luciano erupts into all-out laughter (the type you would expect of an insane person).
Aniello Arena’s performance as Luciano makes perfect sense when you consider that Garrone cast him after seeing his performance in a prison theater troupe. Convicted for taking out a hit on someone while in the mafia, Garrone originally wanted Arena for a role in Gomorrah. But perhaps it was cinematic fate that the role of Luciano later arose, for it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing him with such a deranged naivete. His acting eloquently mirrors back to us the hollow values we have come to hold dear: Fame, self-obsession and egotism.