Matteo Garrone, the Italian film-maker whose credits include Gomorrah, about organised crime in Naples, and Terra di Mezzo, about the difficult life of immigrants in Italy, takes a more light-hearted and whimsical bent with his latest film Reality.
But despite the comic storyline, which sees the central character, Luciano (played by Aniello Arena), start giving all his possessions away to the homeless because he believes the producers of the show are spying on him, the true story behind the film is rather more serious. Reality is based on the true-life story of Garrone's brother-in-law, who became obsessed with getting on the Italian version of Big Brother and was convinced that the producers were watching his every move. "I knew the story from the inside because it happened to the brother of my wife," says Garrone. "He almost committed suicide, but then he went to the doctor and now, finally it's fine. He left the nightmare."
The film's dreamlike visuals and Areno's distant gaze are employed to make the viewer feel they are shifting between reality and fantasy. "The most important part of the project was the subtle line between reality and dreams, but also that all the story could be believable. So we found an 18th century villa, it is decadent and beautiful but also old and crumbling so it was believable that poor people, like Luciano could live there.
At times, the film drifts towards being too far-fetched to be realistic. "The stranger bits were real," says Garrone. "[My brother-in-law] was obsessed with the casting process and thought he needed to be a different person, so he started to act like a saint. His wife couldn't leave the house because when she was out, he was giving away everything in it . He also thought there was a camera hidden in a cricket."
There were real-life tragedies behind the scenes too. Marco Onorato, the film's visual director and Garrone's stepfather, passed away last May after collaborating with Garrone on the film. "I used to be a figurative oil painter, my paintings were close to the 17th century style, so very rich colours. In the film it was important that it was very colourful, like a cartoon. We wanted it to seem like a dream and Marco was able to find that look of a fairytale."
The final surreal, yet real-life element is that Aniello Arena, the star of the film, is a former mafia hitman. Garrone managed to convince a judge to allow Arena out of prison on day-release to take part in the film.
"My father was a critic of theatre and I used to go with him to see plays and Compagnia della Fortezza [a prison theatre group] was our favourite theatre to go to. Aniello was the leading actor of this company and I was really impressed by his talent his face and I thought it was perfect, because it is the face of a working class man but could also be ingenious and clever."
Matteo had previously tried to get Arena for his award-winning film Gomorrah, but the judge wouldn't allow it because the film deals with criminality and violence. "When we were filming, the police would bring him in the morning and then take him back to prison at night. But I wanted him because he is a brilliant actor, not because he is a prisoner. I know that he loves acting more than his life."
'Reality' is in cinemas nationwide from today.