What might ringmaster-of-the-subconscious Fellini have done with the peculiar phenomenon of reality TV?

The gifted Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone (the excellent "Gomorrah") gives us his own magically eccentric homage of sorts to that hypothetical with the psychologically astute, dreamlike gut-punch that is "Reality."

Predicated on the idea that the promise of 15 minutes of fame is as treacherous a mental minefield as instant celebrity's fizzled aftermath, Garrone gives us Napoli fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena), urged by his kids to try out for the reality show "Big Brother." But Luciano's confident anticipation that he'll be accepted triggers a slide into beatific, reverse-Orwellian paranoia: He begins to "perform" his life as if already under 24-hour surveillance.

By wisely avoiding direct satirization of reality TV -- at heart, this is a tale borne of any showbiz aspiration -- and focusing his graceful, wandering camera on the storybook-style personality disintegration of a nascent fame addict, Garrone achieves something uniquely colorful, disturbing and trenchant about self-perception in an increasingly fishbowl-like society.

Arena's a marvel too, imbuing Luciano's delusion with a childlike wonder that's both funny and heartbreaking, a feat girded with irony when you consider that he shot the film on day passes while serving a life sentence in prison.

What are we to make, then, of willful incarceration?, "Reality" asks.

'reality'

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Rating: R (for language)
Cast: Aniello Arena and Loredana Simioli
Director: Matteo Garrone
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In Italian with subtitles