The Plain of Vesuvius, outdoors, daytime. We begin with a wide view of the scene from above, then the camera zooms in on a street and discovers an 18th century carriage filled with page- boys entering the forecourt of a villa. We are at the Grand Hotel La Sonrisa in Sant’Antonio Abate, in the province of Naples. It is difficult to imagine a place that is more kitsch and luxuriant.
Matteo Garrone chose it as the setting for the first sequence of “Reality”,the only Italian movie in competition at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, which will appear before the international jury chaired by Nanni Moretti alongside film-makers such as Anderson, Loach, Haneke, Cronenberg, Resnais and Kiarostami.
This is the beginning of the story.
At the wedding reception that opens the movie produced by Archimede-Fandango and France’s Le Pacte-Garance Capital with Rai Cinema (international sales: Fandango Portobello), Luciano (Aniello Arena) – a Neapolitan fishmonger who ‘supplements’ his low income with small-scale swindles – meets a person who became famous thanks to “Big Brother” and who will change his destiny.
“After the party, the return to the protagonist’s dilapidated extended family home marks the passage from fairy-tale to reality…the effort of climbing up the spiral staircases, the peeling walls and ‘broken’, decadent humanity.
The transition between a fairy-tale dimension and reality is the distinctive theme of the entire movie”, comments Gennaro Aquino, who was also the location manager for “Gomorra”.
Luciano’s house, Villa Pignatelli di Montecalvo, is located between San Giorgio a Cremano and Portici.
This is where most of the story takes place, and also provides the setting for the market where the lead character has a fish stall.
To find this location, Aquino visited over two hundred 18th century Vesuvian villas, the ancient aristocratic homes built around the royal residence of Portici which, over time, have become working class apartment blocks.
He ‘discovered’ Villa Pignatelli di Monteleone in the Barra di Napoli district, “an incredible place where lots of families live and many tiny houses have spontaneously developed in close proximity to each other.
A true microcosm characterized by poverty, unemployment, decay and stratification”.
The market where Luciano works alongside his partner Michele (the Neapolitan comic Nando Paone), complete with stores, workshops and stallholders, has been reconstructed inside the villa’s large round courtyard.
“The idea was to take the courtyard of the palazzo– a little-used, lifeless space, even though it is faced by all the windows
and contains the garages – and transform it”, says Paolo Bonfini, who has been the director’s set designer ever since “Estate Romana”, “thus turning the market, the place where everything happens, into an actual character”.
Due to Garrone’s habit of filming ‘in sequence’, work continued on the set for three months, and was supported by the Film Commission Regione Campania– which followed every step of the lengthy preparations for the movie that is mainly set in the Vesuvius area and in Naples, using locations such as the Chiesa dei SS Marcellino e Festo, the Ditellandia water park, the historic fish market and the Centro Commerciale Vulcano Buono Shopping Center.
“There were quite a few problems”, reveals Gennaro Aquino, “mostly due to the difficulties we encountered during our cohabitation with the local populace, especially when they realized they could make money out of us.
We tried to make everyone happy, employing as many people as we could as laborers and extras. Nearly all the faces you see in the movie are local residents. Our experience with “Gomorra” certainly helped ‘break us in’”.
At the center of the semicircle, the great stone Christ with open armsis just one of the many religious icons scattered throughout the movie, which is overflowing with Madonnas, saints, statues and holy images.
“The religious theme”, explains Paolo Bonfini, “is one of the directions Garrone suggested to us right from the start. Along with the references to Disney-Pixar animations. With Matteo you always start by chasing an atmosphere which is then transcended. So we found ourselves in a reality that we had to make appear unreal by using color. We did this
by placing Christ in the courtyard of the market and applying gaudy colors to him, making the piazza look like a kind of cake. The cartoon references can be seen in the characters, the places and the costumes. The leading character’s family is fat, colorful, and excessively made-up. This dimension has also been used for the set design. I always like to alter reality, to create surreal ambients that are also credible. We don’t make documentaries”.
From the bright colors of the first part of the movie, the atmosphere slowly gets darker, the story develops and takes on a
new direction as the protagonist’s perception of reality changes. Thus Luciano’s delirium begins.
He is convinced that “Big Brother” is spying on him after going for an audition at Cinecittà.
It is here, on the real set of the reality show that Bonfini created his set (one of the few Roman locations used, apart from the outdoor scenes filmed following the Good Friday procession to the Coliseum). This is where Luciano’s obsession
begins and, in the end, burns out. A gradual madness leads him to lose contact with reality.
“From that moment onwards”, says Gennaro Aquino, “everything is seen with different eyes: the women buying fish at the
market and the people observing him at the cemetery in Poggioreale in a beautiful sequence set in the Ipogeo Comunale, an absurd construction surrounded by walls that contains the graves of the poor and, on the upper levels, long dark corridors filled with niches.
A dark, almost metaphysical place.
This could be why, along with the Italian comedies of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the movies by Eduardo or De Sica set in Naples, another source of inspiration was “The tenant”, the narrative construction of which also features a progressive escape from reality”.
Just like in Polanski’s movie, “the change in the protagonist is not perceptible on a visual level, but is
internal”, concludes Paolo Bonfini.
“We did not need to transform the perception of reality because we were already in a surreal dimension, without ever touching on the character. We did a lot of manipulation, but always in an invisible way. “Reality” grabs you and takes you beyond a certain line where you remain until the end. It is difficult to define this movie, it is a mixture between a psychodrama and a comedy”.
Finally, the importance of locations in this movie meant that a significant role was played by the Film Commission Regione Campania which, in addition to finding the places and routine services, offered ongoing assistance, acting as a bridge between the production and the territory, a very precious thing in an area like Campania.
“Not being able to offer economic support at a time when many regions have Funds”, comments the director, Maurizio Gemma, “definitely makes our region less attractive.
However, the work carried out on “Reality”, which was indiscernible but useful, should not be underestimated because by optimizing the timing and costs, we gave a form of economic support, albeit an indirect one”.