CANNES, France — The breakout performance at the Cannes Film Festival this year is Aniello Arena's turn as a Naples fishmonger who becomes obsessed with appearing on a "Big Brother"-style TV show in "Reality."
But the star will not be walking the red carpet at the Italian movie's gala premiere Friday. He'll be where he has been for two decades – in prison.
Arena is riveting in the film by "Gomorrah" director Matteo Garrone – lively, likable and lost – and many viewers were astonished to learn he is serving a life sentence for murder. He has worked for a decade with the respected Fortezza prison theater company but has never appeared in a feature film.
"I wanted him to appear in `Gomorrah,' but the judge wouldn't allow it," said Garrone, whose bloody crime drama won Cannes' second prize in 2008. "We received the authorization for him to appear in the film (Reality) but he was not allowed to come here to Cannes."
Garrone said the absence was "not too bitter a disappointment" for Arena, because the movie's success means he can continue acting. Movie publicists would not comment on the nature of his crime.
Incarceration – mental rather than physical – is a theme of the movie, the only Italian entry among 22 contenders for Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or. Arena plays Luciano, a hustling but cheery family man who becomes obsessed with the notion of television fame.
Garrone said the film depicts reality TV as "a paradise on Earth – a kind of El Dorado that people want to reach." Entering the "Big Brother" house becomes an idea that traps Luciano and gradually takes over his life.
The director said the 40-something Arena's exposure to the outside world after years behind bars helped him capture the essence of a man who is beguiled by a world that is new to him.
"I think you can see that in his eyes and in his look," said Garrone. "The character had to be portrayed by someone who is quite candid."
It's a departure from "Gomorrah," his blood-soaked portrait of Naples' ruthless Camorra crime syndicate. Garrone said he spent a long time looking for a "powerful subject" for his follow-up feature before alighting on the idea of a simple tale that would allow him to show another slice of Neapolitan life and "portray with great love a character while denouncing an aspect of society."
It's hard not to see the story as a satire on our celebrity-obsessed culture, but Garrone wants it to have the timeless quality of a fable. He compares it to "Pinocchio," the story of a puppet who yearns to be a real boy. Luciano is a real man who yearns to be a celebrity.
"I don't think I have ever been a very realistic director," Garrone said. "I talk about reality and then transfigure it, lend another dimension – and then it becomes a fable."
"Reality" is full of heart and humor – especially from the voluble, Fellini-esque assortment of characters who make up Luciano's family and neighbors – but it turns darker as Luciano's single-minded pursuit of fame leads to a kind of madness.
"Initially our idea was to produce a comedy," said screenwriter Ugo Chiti. "I think the comedy evolved ... and turned into a sort of tragedy."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http:twitter.com/JillLawless