We caught up with director Matteo Garrone at the Cannes press conference for his latest film, REALITY

REALITY screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and was one of the major talking points of the festival, since lead actor Aniello Arena is currently serving a life sentence in Italy‘s Volterra Detention Center for his involvement, as a teenager, in organised crime. We caught up with director Matteo Garrone at Cannes to find out more about REALITY and it’s leading actor.

Gomorrah was four years ago, what happened in the years between that film and Reality?
Matteo Garrone: After Gomorrah I was looking for a theme that would be as powerful. I wanted to make an even more surprising and robust film. Gradually I came to realise that I was heading straight for a brick wall. I kept looking for a very powerful subject, and then I happened upon a tale of Naples, and this little tale was something that led me to think that we could make a metaphor out of something very simple. We started working with the scriptwriters and in the end we produced the film.

Is this film is a criticism of television?
MG: We shot the film without trying to be critical in any way. We didn’t want to shoot a film that would remind people of other great Italian films, in fact what we were trying to do was portray, with great love, a character, while denouncing just an aspect of society, but the aim was not at all to be critical.

When you were shooting the film, did you think of the masters of Italian comedy or people like Fellini?
MG: Of course, one cannot deny that we do pay tribute to the great masters of Italian cinema in this film, and I hope I haven’t copied them. I hope I have retained my own voice and my own version of society. If you think about Fellini, you think more about his first films. Ginger and Fred is, in one way or another, a film that is linked to a specific period in Fellini’s work. I believe that he also talked about TV. As to similarities, I believe that we are midway between Toto and DeNiro, but that is a very subjective viewpoint.

You have succeeded in reinventing Italian cinema; did you think about Pasolini and his assertion that TV makes people stupid?
MG: I am familiar with Pasolini’s work and I agree with what you just said, but we simply wanted to tell a simple tale close to the people. We had no intentions of criticising anything – be it the world of politics or anything else for that matter. We didn’t want to provide any answers either. We follow the main character as he evolves in the film and we can see how the country evolves at the same time. It is sort of an inner voyage for the character; he loses his identity gradually, and this pushes him towards madness.

Why isn’t Aniello Arena here at Cannes?
MG: Aniello is not present because he comes from a theatrical company that puts on plays in prison, so he is not authorised to come out. He has been a member of the company for a number of years now. I was accustomed to going to the theatre with my father when I was young – my father was a theatre critic – and I became familiar with this company. I wanted Aniello to play in Gomorrah, but the judge would not allow this, which had nothing to do with the crime. We received the authorisation for him to act in the film, but he was not allowed to come to Cannes. He is very pleased that the film was selected to play in Cannes.

Can you tell us anything more about Aniello Arena’s situation?
MG: Aniello is indeed in jail and he has been in jail for 18 or 19 years. He started acting 12 years ago with the theatrical company in the prison. He is one of the main actors in the company and, for a couple of years now, he has been allowed out of prison to act. The judge allowed him to act in our film; it is his first film. During the day he worked on the set and in the evening he went back to prison. As I already said, he is very happy indeed that the film was selected for Cannes. He is pleased, through the film, to be able to continue acting. He loves acting. He is used to acting in the theatre in a way that’s similar to what I do; I shoot in sequence, I give my actors tremendous freedom. We have a lot of common ground in our work. He assimilated the character well, and at the end of the film when he had become crazy he suffered for his character. He, as an actor, had really become the character; there was a real symbiosis. I think it is noticeable on the screen. He was very candid in his way of portraying the character, the character discovers reality as the film unfolds, and the fact that he is still a prisoner enabled him to discover a whole world as well. I think this can be read in his eyes. This was fundamental for the character, the character had to be embodied by a person who was quite candid.

Is reality TV still a phenomenon in Italy?
MG: TV programmes have evolved a bit; they have changed to a degree. We wanted to present TV like it was a paradise on Earth, a kind of Eldorado that people wanted to reach, but we did not want to focus on any particular TV programme. I am not sure about the TV programmes in Italy; I think that in the recent past, these programmes have played an important role. A lot of people have tried to change their lives and their destinies by getting recruited for these TV programmes.

Would you agree that the cricket in the film is reminiscent of Pinocchio?
MG: Yes, our character is like a modern day Pinocchio. We kept thinking about Pinocchio in the screenplay, when we were writing it. One can always reinvent the story and sometimes the real scenes are the ones that appear totally invented. The one with the cricket was totally invented.

Religion plays an important part in the film; do you think TV has replaced religion in a way?
MG: This is a film which deals with the average person. One could mention some of the leading philosophers. It is quite a spectacle, which fascinates. The character is trying to improve his lot in life, that’s his main motivation, and he wants so much t change his lot in life that he ends up living in a dream. It proves a very costly error. Then he finds the crucifixion, which leads him to a terrestrial paradise. He is like an alcoholic who has stopped drinking who ends up at a party where everyone is drunk. It is interesting to note that this has occurred many a time in history. I think that this tale is a wonderful tool for reaching this end and conclusion.

You appear to be a fan of reality in films, would you agree?
MG: It would appear that my approach is very realistic, but I don’t think I have ever been a very realistic director. Maybe it looks that way! I talk about reality and then transfigure it and I lend it a further dimension and it becomes a fable. I am not familiar enough with modern cinema, I don’t know what direction it is going in, it is hard to tell which direction I am going in.

The film is quite cruel in a way; did you ever have a different ending for the film?
MG: We worked so hard on the end of the film. We thought about different endings. We thought about an ending where he would be in his apartment, or he would be in the house and he would fight with the security guards and be injured. Another ending was that he was thrown out into the street and had to go back to Naples. The best ending ending – the easiest, most direct ending – was the one we used. We found this ending on the set because we shot the film in sequence. At the end of shooting, we felt it was preferable and more natural for the film to end this way, with the crazy laughter. It’s a kind of death, it’s quite dramatic. We felt this idea harked back to the very beginning of the film, but things became more surprising and metaphysical.

Words: Brogen Hayes