Italian director Matteo Garrone came to international attention with his 2008 film, "Gomorrah," which told brutal tales, based on reality, of the Camorra, a Mafia-like criminal enterprise. Garrone's new film tackles a subject almost as loathsome: reality television.

"Reality," which like the earlier film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, is a deliberate change of pace after "Gomorrah." But it's not the polar opposite you might expect.

The new film certainly looks like a colorful comedy as it opens. Garrone, who trained as a painter, presents a palette of bright, flashy colors that mirror the people who parade through this playground. But the picture turns out to be an illusion, as do so many things in this film. A horse-drawn carriage makes it way through a city, before its doors are opened by people who could have stepped off the set of "Amadeus." A smiling bride and groom step out. Brilliantly dressed guests toast and dance at what looks like an expensive production. But when the wedding is over, they return to plainer clothes and plainer-still homes.

On screen
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone
» Director: Matteo Garrone
» Rated: R for some language
» Running time: 116 minutes

One celebrity did make a brief appearance at the reception: Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), an everyman who became rich and famous by winning a season of the Italian version of "Big Brother." Luciano (Aniello Arena) is known in the family as a ham -- and a talented one -- and he gets dressed up in drag to amuse the guests and the guest of honor. At home, his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), lovingly removes his makeup. Luciano seems happy to be a family man who's the biggest fish in his very small pond.

But not for long. Luciano is a Naples fishmonger who makes a little extra on the side running a little scam. He's dealing with one of the cantankerous old women he's stuck working with to run the scheme when his wife calls. The whole family is at the mall and sees auditions taking place for the next run of "Big Brother." They persuade Luciano to drop his work and try out. Luciano isn't really that interested -- he does it simply because his adorable daughters beg him to. But once the idea of winning a lot of money for doing nothing but becoming famous enters his head, Luciano is never the same again.

And so what begins as a satirical comedy turns into something much more uncomfortable. Paranoia, madness, faith, belief -- "Reality" is about all these things and more. "Reality" can be as slow-moving as watching the 24-hour webcam in the "Big Brother" house. But the payoffs are greater.

Garrone has been deeply influenced by Italian neorealism, and it's nowhere more evident than in his choice of star. Aniello Arena is not a professional actor. Indeed, he currently has no profession at all -- the former hit man is in prison serving a sentence for murder. So we might say portraying the desperation that Luciano begins to feel when he senses the possibility of a new life and then the unlikelihood of its happening comes naturally to Arena. His charisma carries the film, even as the likable family man becomes less and less likable. He was free to film each day but returned to prison at night. When Arena gets out -- he's spent two decades locked up and has eight more years to serve -- the talented thespian will really have a new life waiting for him. Let's hope he handles his potential better than the luckless character he plays here.