03/13/2013 11:19 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2013

Matteo Garrone Is ON OUR RADAR: The Italian Director On 'Reality,' And The Perils Of Loving Fellini

Matteo Garrone is a hard man to ignore. The director’s celebrated 2008 drama about a clan of gangsters in southern Italy, “Gomorrah,” starts with a literal bang -- a shooting in a tanning salon. This week, the Rome native returns to the U.S. with another ripped-from-the-headlines pitch, albeit one pulled from a different section of the paper.

In “Reality,” Garrone’s latest feature, a fishmonger in Naples, Italy grows obsessed with appearing on the Italian version of “Big Brother.” The film’s earthiness -- the plot closely follows an experience that befell Garrone’s brother-in-law -- as well as the unusual fact that its star is currently serving a sentence for murder, are stirring the level of interest Garrone seems to have a knack for drawing.

The Huffington Post couldn’t think of a better addition to our On Our Radar series, a compendium of working artists who deserve mainstream attention. On a cold, sunny afternoon in Manhattan, the soft-spoken former painter sat down to tell us why “Gomorrah” and “Reality” are more alike than they seem, how his childhood habits kick in when he’s making films, and to make sure we don't confuse the Italian word “decadente” with the English ”decadent" (it’s an important distinction).

The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

The Huffington Post: Why does “Reality” matter?

Mateo Garrone: The movie comes from a true story that happened to the brother of my wife. I thought it would be interesting to tell -- very Napolitan and Italian, but at the same time universal. It could be a sort of modern fairy tale. I also thought it could be very different from “Gomorrah.”

I don’t think it’s so different anymore. In “Gomorrah,” we talk about victims of the crime system. Here we talk about a victim of the show business system. Both are very dangerous. You see a family that is not so poor, that has everything, but they want to escape from everyday life into artificial paradise. Luciano is pushed by his family, by his daughter, by his neighbor. The desire is a contagion. It becomes a sort of [Luigi] Pirandello story. He starts to lose his identity and build a new one and that’s the beginning of the tragedy.

HP: Who or what are some of your early influences?

MG: “Gomorrah” was probably more influenced by Rossellini, and I would say [Vittorio] De Sica -- his movies of the 1960s, set in Naples, starring Eduardo de Filippo. I like very much the atmosphere of those movies. The color is very warm and at the same time decadent. I don't know if that's the right word.

HP: Do you mean it looks wealthy?

MG: No, for us decadente is crumbling, or decaying. You can feel that in De Sica’s movies, and the early movies of Fellini, like “White Sheik." There is always Fellini in my movies. But I try to find my personal way. It’s very very risky to try to be Fellini. It’s suicide.

HP: What have been the lowest and highest points of your film career so far?

MG: I have to say, until now I can see just positive moments. I never have had the frustration of not being able to make what I want to do. At the beginning of my career, my projects were very low budget, so I could produce them by myself. After “Gomorrah,” it was easy to produce “Reality.” For the moment I haven't had the desire to make a movie with a lot of special effects or expensive costumes, but in the future I would like to do different work, so we’ll see.

As for something that went better than I expected? Well, “Gomorrah.” When we were working, we didn’t know what we were making. We had no distance, so sometimes we felt like if it was a disaster.

HP: Is there anything you’re obsessed with right now? A writer, or movie, or even something not in your field?

MG: Nothing in particular. It’s all a big mess, you know. Every day there’s so much stimulus, it's hard to pick just one.

HP: How would your childhood art teacher remember you?

MG: When I was very very young, four or five, I drew a lot. I told stories like a storyboard. The story was all drawn backwards. I used to do everything opposite, so my name, Matteo, I used to write as Oettam. I remember I used a lot of colors and the drawings were very detailed. I think this was an aspect that came back when I started to make cinema.