The closest parallel to Matteo Garrone’s film Reality is not his acclaimed Gomorrah, but Martin Scorsese’s excellent non-comedy The King of Comedy (1983), which now seems eerily prescient. Where Scorsese explored obsession and insanity in the age of talk shows, Garrone looks at our era— the era of reality TV. As you can imagine, the obsession and insanity has gotten a lot worse. You don’t need a talent to get on TV anymore, but delusions of grandeur certainly help.

Reality tells the story of Luciano (Aniello Arena), a fishmonger who auditions for “Grande Fratello” and becomes obsessed with the show. At first motivated by his daughters’ suggestion and his love for his family, things rapidly take a dark turn as his fixation transforms into paranoia and madness. As a bartender (Ciro Petrone, who starred in Gomorrah) says, “It’s confirmed, Luciano’s lost it.”

He’s only doing what he’s told, though— the motto of previous “Grande Fratello” winner, Enzo, is “never give up,” repeated constantly in heavily-accented English. Like The King of Comedy, as the film goes on, it becomes extremely difficult to watch— especially as Luciano’s obsession with the show causes him to lose everything he values. The film walks the difficult line of making the audience want Luciano to succeed, despite knowing that he’s doomed, whether he succeeds or fails.

Garrone himself does not like reality TV at all– and he does his best to distance his technique from its methodologies. The opening take lasts for several minutes, and the underlying rhythm is slow and methodical: the antithesis of the rapid back-and-forth, multi-camera setups of shows like “Grande Fratello,” the Italian incarnation of America’s “Big Brother.” This only serves to make the fictional, but very true, story feel more real than the heightened, sped-up pseudo-reality of television.

Another waypoint for Reality is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  It explores a similarly dark side of Italian culture, but Garronne focuses on the more recent sides of its Americanization. He pans from a long line of auditioners to the sign above: “Cinecittà,” where Fellini’s, among others’, films were shot. At the same time, the studio is part of the legacy of the real Big Brother: Benito Mussolini, who founded the studio in 1937.

In Reality, Garrone does not shy away from the fascistic aspects of many people’s favorite TV shows. Editing draws parallels between the potential “Grande Fratello” cast members and the dead fish Luciano sorts through for his business. Luciano tells two costumers to opt for a different fish than they originally asked for, noting that “it’s very fresh.” The comparison is clear: to the producers of the show, each individual participant is no better than a piece of dead meat—the only thing that matters is if it’s fresh.  The fake family of the show is also thrown into relief by Luciano’s real family, who all inhabit the same building, sharing a bedroom, living in the cramped conditions of moderate poverty that would be ripe for televised exploitation.

The film itself is difficult to watch and difficult to wrangle, and though an immense artistry is clearly present, it is far from the comedy Garrone apparently intended to make. As far as satire goes, this is as dark as it gets, but we live in a particularly dark age.  Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score deserves a special commendation.  It sounds like the best parts of everything Danny Elfman has ever written, and provides something to look forward to, even if you see that there is nowhere for Luciano to go but downward.