After the title Reality, the next thing we see is a gilded carriage drawn by two white horses rolling through the Italian countryside. Soon it turns in through huge gates opened by servants in eighteenth-century costume. The carriage has arrived at a huge villa with lovely grounds filled with festivating people in modern dress. The carriage has brought a bride and groom to their wedding party.
But the film is not about them. In the midst of the carousing throng we soon see a drag queen who turns out to be a man called Luciano. (Dragging just for this party.) After some embellishments with a visiting celebrity, we learn that he is a fish stand owner from Naples, here with his wife, Maria. So Reality begins with a couple of instances of fantasy and soon continues with more.
Luciano and his wife have their stand in a lovely old piazza in Naples, and there they also run a gentle scam with housewives involving kitchen appliances. Luciano’s restless mind is now attracted by what he hears of a gigantically popular reality TV show called "Big Brother." It has already made some entrants rich, and the show is looking for more. Luciano is struck. He goes to Rome and manages to get an audition. We don’t see it, but he is sure he did well, and he returns to Naples certain that he will hear back from the reality people. He is so certain, in fact, that his own reality begins to crumble. He thinks every phone call is from them. He so surely sees riches ahead that he even starts to give away the furniture in his apartment because he will not need it. Worse, he even fantasizes that a cricket that gets into his home—none has been there before—is a sort of spy sent by the TV people. Remonstrations and pleas from Maria and friends do not help. He finally goes to Rome, unsummoned, and makes his way into the TV headquarters. There reality occurs.
Matteo Garrone, the director whose Gomorrah dealt with the gangsters of Naples, here turns to legal disorder—the fantasies with which TV teases ordinary lives. Garrone has a feeling for sweep and color, and he makes Luciano a pathetic victim of the unrealities with which TV can beset us. His rendering of this story of modern dislocation is made all the more telling because much of it takes place against solid, very old backgrounds.
Luciano is convincingly played by Aniello Arena, with growing fervor, and Arena’s is a story that rivals the picture he is in. It is an additional chunk of reality. Arena is a life-term prisoner in Italy, and has already been in prison for twenty years, sentenced for his part in a 1991 shootout. In prison he began to act, was seen by some visitors, and eventually landed this role. He was let out of prison every morning and returned at night, after a day’s work on the film. Questions arise. For instance, is there a warden who reads a screenplay before Arena is granted permission to be in it? In any event, the whole process is extraordinary and marks a humane bent in Italy’s prison rules.
Sexual traffic and sexual slavery have been subjects of numerous recent films—documentaries, mostly—from Asian and European countries. Those subjects could hardly be more cruel, but we couldn’t always feel sure that the motives behind those films were free of exploitation. Now comes Eden, an American film that seems as seriously intended and free of salaciousness as possible while still giving the subject its appropriate shock. Eden is an enacted film but, we are assured, is based on fact. Those facts are actually a bit dizzying.
This is the story of a Korean teenager named Hyun Jae who was brought to this country by her parents and in 1994 is working at her father’s shop in New Mexico. One day she goes with with a girlfriend to a bar and, spotting an attractive young man in a fireman’s uniform, sits down for a drink with him. After a while he offers to drive her home, and, impressed by his niceness, she accepts. En route, he parks, strips off his (fake) uniform coat, and rapes her. He binds and gags her. Then he delivers her to two men waiting out in the vast countryside. Obviously she had been spotted as a prime victim. Those men deliver her to two other men farther in the countryside, and in some sort of dispute, one of the two new men shoots the first two. All these events happen as if they were normal business transactions. The shooter is a man named Bob Gault, who is also a federal marshal. His presence eventually helps to explain how this business can go on.
The girl, who is soon renamed Eden, is taken to an establishment, a camp, consisting of a few buildings and a row of what look like one-car garages—at least fifteen of them. Each of them is a bunk for a girl, locked. The place is well set up with attendants, including a few female medical aides. The girls are kept slightly drugged by those women, and in other ways are handled slyly. At one point each of the girls is given a kitten. Soon enough Eden learns that she and the other girls are to work as prostitutes, there or on outside dates. They are kept from fleeing or even complaining to patrons by Bob, who promises to deal with their families if they make trouble. We even see Eden and some others taken to a university frat house and brought back.
Eventually more murder occurs, and Eden manages to escape with another girl. Not leaving us, however, without questions. The camp is large, and even though it is out in the countryside, did no one ever think to investigate it? Were none of the girls ever searched for by police? Some assurance comes from Bob, who is played by Beau Bridges with such a congenial air of neighborliness that he doubtlessly found ways to handle questioners. A quite moving performance comes from Jamie Chung as Eden, repulsion sliding into fearful acceptance without the extinction of hope. The director was Megan Griffiths, who has kept the film reportorial rather than exploitative, and she wrote the screenplay with Richard B. Phillips.
However, Eden leaves me with the same question that the other sex traffic films have prompted. We hear about all the government efforts to find and punish traffickers. We rarely hear about efforts to find patrons who make the business profitable.
A German film called The Silence—a title once used by Bergman—is about another kind of sex crime. Two young men are sitting around one day in a country town, then decide to go out and find a victim. They drive out into the country and see a schoolgirl bicycling up a lonely road. They stop her. One of them rapes her and, more or less incidentally, murders her.
The criminals are not found. Twenty-three years later a missing girl’s bicycle is found at the same spot. A detective involved in the first case is again involved here. Among other people he visits is the mother of the first victim. We meet others, too, to whom that first victim has become part of local lore, almost a minor tourist attraction.
All of this is very sternly recounted by the director Baran bo Odar, with a generally intelligent sense of purpose. But when this intelligently made film is finished, all we have really learned is that a man who was the murderer of the first girl is also involved in the second case. The most rewarding element in the picture is the performance of the first girl’s mother by Katrin Sass, who gives us quietly and darkly what it is like to live with the memory of your child’s murder.