Let the duel begin. The cathedral bell has struck 10 by the time the night’s rehearsal is ready to begin in earnest, after much work on the set: moving panels bearing a magnified, annotated 17th century script of Romeo and Juliet in Italian. Mercuzio and Tebaldo draw swords; with the agility of wildcats, they leap from position to position; clash swords, stab and retreat. Finally, the ponytailed actor playing Mercuzio – Armando Punzo, lithe for his fiftysomething years – slumps against a back wall.
Outside, the empty, narrow cobbled streets are quite silent in the beautiful hill-top Tuscan town of Volterra – a stillness through which footsteps echo loudly off the ancient stone. This place feels as old as time itself: the Etruscans were here, there is a Roman amphitheatre and the Medici made their inimitable and indelible mark with a fortress, which they converted into a prison. Jail it still is, the entrance up a ramp opposite the lovely rehearsal building – and just as well.
For there are a few quirks to what is happening here at this highly unusual rehearsal. First, this version of Shakespeare’s masterwork set in Italy is an adaptation by Punzo, entitled Mercuzio Doesn’t Want to Die. Nor does he. Secondly, most of the cast in this production are prisoners; Punzo’s “fortress company” was established 25 years ago for the express purpose of working with inmates from across the road, training and directing them to perform within the jail, in the town and even on tour.
Perhaps odd – for the British or American public, certainly – is the fact that this is happening at all. It is not normal in Italy, but neither is Punzo doing something unique. There has been much publicity for a film by Italian cinema‘s famous Taviani brothers with prisoners in Rome’s famously severe Rebbibia jail, called Caesar Must Die, in which inmates re-enact scenes from Julius Caesar. Some have hailed this as the imaginative and enlightened “re-education” of offenders, while more than one newspaper column has jeered that to make it in cinema these days, one has first to commit a crime.
But Punzo’s company has attracted further and different attention. The character now playing Tebaldo, with striking skill and an extraordinary range of facial expressions on stage and off, is Aniello Arena, no normal actor. Arena, 44, is serving a life sentence, without parole, for a crime that the Italians call strage – literally “outrage”, but meaning “massacre”. Arena was convicted of being a hit man for the Nemolato clan of the Neapolitan Camorra, the organised crime syndicate, and was jailed for the murder of three members of a rival group who had been seeking to push drugs on his clan’s terrain. At the trial Arena admitted involvement in criminal activity, but insisted he was innocent of the murders.
More bizarre still, Arena’s mastery of acting during his life as a prisoner has been acknowledged at the highest level: he stars in a jewel of a film which won the 2012 grand prix at Cannes, where he also narrowly missed being proclaimed best actor. He has been compared to De Niro and Pacino. Both the movie and Arena’s superlative performance fall within the very best and most cogent traditions of Italian realism and Neapolitan tragi-comedy; entitled Reality, the film explores the toxic aspirations of a nation addicted to watching Big Brother on television, and the impact of reality television on people’s real lives; it opens in the similarly addicted UK next month.
Reality is the work of Italy’s most compelling film director by far: Matteo Garrone, whose unrelenting cinematic depiction of the Comorra, Gomorrah, was among the finest films made anywhere during recent years. Garrone wanted Arena to play a role in Gomorrah – as a hit man, indeed – but the parole board ruled this beyond the pale. Now, however, Arena’s moment has come.
As it happens, I was there on the scene of the murders in January 1991, living much of the time in Naples and reporting on the Camorra for the Guardian. These were years of seismic shift in Italy, not least in the world of criminality and its associations to power; years which in Naples were known as the sorpasso – of the old guard, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, being outflanked by the more adventurous Camorra with its crucial openings towards, and alliances with, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cocaine cartel. The year after the Naples killings, in 1992, Sicilian syndicates would blow up two great anti-mafia judges, actions wrongly interpreted as signs of strength. The Camorra – Italy’s oldest mafia organisation, dating back to Spanish rule in Naples – watched and seized the time. More visibly, the Camorra famously adopted – or ensnared – Diego Maradona (who played for Napoli in his heyday) as its mascot, and thereby victim, befriending the genius striker, moving in on his merchandise – and furnishing him with women and drugs.
Accustomed as one was to violent crime in those days, the events of January 1991 were hard to forget. There was the Bar Crocelle, in the Barra area of Naples, cordoned and strafed by 40 rounds from two 7.65 calibre pistols and a Kalashnikov rifle. Three were killed and two wounded, one of whom was a nine-year-old boy hit by a ricochet. Two of those shot left the bar, where they had apparently been playing cards, and staggered, leaving a trail of blood, towards a side street called Via Mastelloni, where they collapsed dead. The attack had been on members and supporters of the Liberti family, which had been trying to deal drugs on Nemolato turf in the Barra, where Arena had grown up.
“My father made fritters and sold them on the street,” Arena tells me during conversation over a delicious lunch in a restaurant with the prisoner and theatre company. “He was good at what he did, everyone liked them. But we were a poor family – and we grew up where we did, the way we did. If you were born into a criminal quarter of the city, then sometimes if you were going to make it, that is who you had to be. Or so you think – nowadays, I tell the young people not to do what I did.” Arena speaks in broad Neapolitan dialect, which comes from the back of the throat, and truncates every word with a descending hum, or sigh – it is famously singular, akin to raw scouse.
“I moved to Volterra jail in 1999,” explains Arena, “after being in a dozen or so prisons, through the system and including the worst. I’d heard of the fortress company. But I was an ignoramus. I wasn’t that kind of person; didn’t understand a thing – and I’d done what I’d done. I thought Naples was the world, and that theatre was for other people, apart from the Neapolitan theatre – of course we all knew Totò.” Totò was a legend in the Vesuvian city – a comedian of genius; poignant, mysterious.
“I’ve done this work [with prisoners in Volterra jail] for 25 years,” explains Punzo, formerly an actor of national repute. “I don’t want to work with professional actors and their vices. I’m interested in working with real characters, rather than putting on masks.”
“I saw one of their productions”, says Arena, “with the prisoners acting, in jail. I was flabbergasted. What the fuck is this? I thought. Even then, though, I couldn’t believe it was for an idiot like me. It took a long, long time. I’m a moron, a criminal. Who wants to watch a criminal on a stage? I never imagined I could be involved in something like this. But I asked myself: ‘What will you do if you don’t do this?'”
Police examine the scene after the killings in Naples of which Aniello Arena was later convicted. Photograph: ControluceArena applied for a role in a production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera on which Punzo was working. “There’s an improvised monologue in Armando’s version,” he says. “But I was terrified. I missed dinner and went to hide in the costume cupboard. ‘This is not you,’ I told myself. ‘You’re an imbecile from the slums of Naples, and you can’t do this.’ But Armando took me by the hand, led me into the rehearsal space, I did my soliloquy, and he liked it. I was in the production. Then I realised: ‘Fuck it, he’s right!’ And it went from there. We confront each other in the group, we confront ourselves, we confront what we’ve done. And it came to this: my past life doesn’t exist any more; I am not that person any more.”
Like Arena, Punzo and his wife Cinzia are both Neapolitans – like a Vesuvian cabal in the Tuscan town. Punzo was even born in a building with a view of the players’ entrance into Napoli’s San Paolo stadium. There’s a framed portrait of Maradona in the theatre company office. This is serendipitous, but not unexpected; there is a strong tradition of theatre in Naples, and within it of the jester who subverts things with comic surreality; a theatre which merges Pinocchio with Totò and the famous figure of the Neapolitan pulcinella. It derives in part from the city’s mercurial and intangible spirituality, rich in symbols, occult meanings, numerology, syncretism between Catholicism and magic, between scintillescent sunlight and deep shadow – and the cult of death. When Napoli first won the Seria A Italian championship with Maradona in 1987, graffiti appeared on a cemetery wall: “You Don’t Know What You Missed.” Next day, someone painted a reply: “How Do You Know We Missed It?”
This dramatic atmosphere in turn generates a theatre of everyday life, as Garrone’s films vividly illustrate. The Neapolitan world’s a stage: “All Naples is a theatre,” says Arena. “The way we live, the way we speak and move.” With this in mind, I watch recordings of some of the plays in which Arena was acting when Garrone – Punzo’s close friend – came to Volterra to see for himself this work with prisoners. They are inventive in the extreme, but fall firmly within the legacy of that Neapolitan magical surrealism, dominated by the tragic clown. “I do not come from the neo-realist school,” says Punzo. “I’m not interested in emulating reality, as are many colleagues I admire. In these times when everything seems entirely pointless, I’ve become interested not in banal reality, but surreality. I’m interested in how to liberate ourselves from this banal reality. Aniello is a prisoner, at the extreme end of a prison we all share – and I’m interested in transcending that reality.”
Hamlice is an adaptation by Punzo that entwines Hamlet with Alice in Wonderland, and in which Shakespeare’s characters liberate themselves in Lewis Carroll’s world (one which, incidentally, is highly cogent in Italian alternative culture, and played an important role in the insurgent movement in Italy during the 1970s, whose main radio station was called Radio Alice).
Arena’s main soliloquy is breathtaking: wearing a face-painted mask of kaleidoscopic colours and in drag (a red dress), his character declaims a kind of manifesto: “I wish to live in the drama of schism, of division … Live for a different idea, cultivate love for another possibility unforeseen, full of attraction and danger, necessary, inevitable, fatal… ” Written by Punzo, made rhetorical by Arena, who speaks his lines with a mixture of mockery and defiance, across a range of facial expression that excites as much as it discomforts. In another production, of Marat/Sade, Arena presses his face through the bars to convey a meeting between madness and anguish that is almost unbearable to watch.
I suggest to the two of them, Arena and Punzo, that there is here an element of real life – Arena’s past – informing the intensity, that he knows these feelings only too well. “No“, insists Arena, “this is work, it is trained. Yes, after a certain moment, I lose myself entirely in the drama. I get transported, and maybe there’s something. But up to that point, I’m focused on Armando’s ideas and directions – I’m practising, practising and practising. This has all happened very, very slowly. Not everyone can do this.”
“Think of Jack Nicholson working on those faces before The Shining,” says Punzo.
Arena was granted leave by the parole board and prison authorities to pursue his enthusiasm, at certain hours of the day, crossing the road from the fortress to rehearse in a former public hall in a late Renaissance building. In 2006, Garrone visited and was enthralled. He was at the time casting Gomorrah, based on the terrifying depiction of the Camorra in a book by a journalist who had grown up among them, Roberto Saviano. Garrone’s first notion was to cast Arena as – effectively – his real self, a killer. But for the parole board, the proximity between reality and the proposed role was too much; Garrone’s request was refused.
So Arena continued to perform and tour. And surreally so: “When we got to a town to play, those in the company who were not prisoners would find a hotel, and the prisoners would have to register at the local jail,” says Punzo. “If it was Rome, it’d be Rebbibia, one of the worst.” How did his co-inmates react? “You know who you are in a jail, and in the end, I’m still one of them. I think they’re happy for me.”
Arena is too intelligent and possessed of canny Neapolitan guile to play the game the Italian press wants of him, and recount his Camorrista life in detail. He answers those questions thus: “There are people who have died, and there are those of us who are still alive. When I think of what I did and who I was, that is someone else.” But he does explain: “Across the poor districts of Italy, if you are a boy, your ambition is to become a footballer; if you’re a girl, it’s to become a dancer on TV. Those are the role models. But where I was born, there is only the Camorra boss. You see him, you see how he lives – and he is the way of life. He is the role model, he is what you aspire to become. And I did – but you are like a bird in a cage.
“You are growing up, trying to work out what it is possible to discover, in this daily life and the reality of the place – and the kind of society – in which we lived. The bosses were the wider family, they were the opportunity. And this is what I knew, before I met the theatre. I did it myself. I had done this to myself.” I ask if Arena fears revenge, out and about as he is. “I know who is dead and who is in jail,” he replies.
Back in the rehearsal room, Arena shows what could be called remorse on two occasions. One is when we talk about his children, now in their 20s. “I see them, but it could have been different… [his usually assertive voice trails off] it could have been different.” And when he talks about his late father – what a shame, I suggest, that the hardworking fritter vendor cannot see his famous son now. “I think he can,” replies Arena. Which prompts an obvious question, about religion, which often accompanies such trajectories as Arena’s, towards a “second life“. His answer is quintessentially Neapolitan: “I believe in something. Maybe not God, and the church doesn’t interest me, But [there is] something divine out there, outside us, very mysterious, but not necessarily God.”
The actor talks about a recording he made for an anti-mafia organisation “urging the children to stay at school, to learn about the world instead of taking the route I took that leads nowhere. When you get to that fork in the road, seek another reality which allows you to change, to spurn your surroundings for something beyond, higher.”
Arena is not penitent, however, as he is expected to be. In Italian mafia parlance, there are two different concepts – of a penitente, and of a pentito – the former begs forgiveness, the latter squeals on his former comrades in exchange for leniency in sentencing. Arena – a professed former criminal who denies the murders – is neither of these.
This reluctance to exhibit either his criminal past or remorse for public consumption is one of the reasons why Arena’s success has attracted remarkably little attention in Italy, considering. For it is not just the press that wants this to be a moral and social fairy tale, but the institutions of society – the church, the political establishment. Society wants a repentant sinner, but Arena’s is a story about theatre and ideas, not some prodigal redemption. “It’s not a welcome back to the fold of Catho-communism,” says Cinzia De Felice, Punzo’s wife and manager of the company.
De Felice’s use of the term Catho-communism locates the fortress company project on Italy’s cultural-historical-political map. It’s an expression I’ve not heard since my own days in the ambit of Italy’s radical movement during the 1970s, when revolutionaries used it to describe the morality of what they saw as a dual establishment of Christian democracy and the communist party, against which they pitched themselves with equal tenacity.
“All this has happened against incredible pressure,” says Punzo. “People do not want prisoners acting. They do not want to err from the idea of jail as punishment.”
“I came to this conclusion: that real life is actually the theatre,” says Arena. This is all the more ironic given the title of the film with which Arena won the grand prix at Cannes, about reality TV. After the success of Gomorrah, Garrone was petitioned from many quarters to make another mafia film. But he resisted. He wanted to make a comedy – though in Italy, comedy is rarely slapstick and usually tragic in some way. His theme this time would be the story of a fish merchant and petty criminal, Luciano, whose dream it was to successfully audition for Big Brother on television. Real life would play out in Naples, with the promise of reality TV up the road in Rome. There was only one actor Garrone could consider for the lead role: he wanted to try again to cast the prisoner in Volterra whom his friend had nurtured. This time the judge consented.
“At first, I found cinema cold,” says Arena. “It means performing before a camera, which is a cold machine – while the public is a collection of people. But Matteo was always open to our ideas. The film was made by all of us, in a way. And it was filmed in sequence, as the story happens, so that we could suggest and change things as we went along. So it was like theatre on film, in that way.”
The cinematography is glorious, sometimes sumptuous. Garrone’s trademark long, lingering shots give the actors free rein to create that same sense of dramatic spontaneity he achieved in Gomorrah. His use of chiaroscuro is charged with symbolic meaning – the shadows of Naples’s peeling courtyards and the brilliant sun without – as is the ominously constant backdrop of either Vesuvius or indigo raincloud. The casting is magnificent – his characters drawn from life and close to life, yet acted to technical perfection; playing Luciano’s wife, Loredana Simioli gives one of the great – and most poignantly intimate – performances in modern Italian cinema. “I watched them closely every second we were on the set,” says Arena. “I learned and learned from what they were doing, but then again – for much of the film, I could just be myself.”
“All I’ve got to do is act naturally,” sings Ringo Starr in the Beatles’ version of the song. It could be Garrone’s credo – getting people from the streets to play themselves, and directing actors to perform so close to reality that the disbelief is suspended; you think you are watching the real world. It is a strong and glorious tradition in Italian cinema, from the realist school that followed the second world war, epitomised by Roberto Rossellini, to the political drama of Francesco Rosi (which Garrone took to the criminal underground in Gomorrah). The kind of cinema that reached a zenith in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers.
“For the first half, when Luciano is living his life, I played the part well,” says Arena. “I just had to be myself. But Matteo warned me about what happens after Luciano loses his mind.” There is a fulcrum scene: Luciano is convinced that agents from the studio in Rome are spying on him, as part of the selection process. It begins with two women from the capital buying fish at his stall, and Luciano then curses himself for scolding a homeless drunk – whom he later also thinks to have been a studio spy, and treats lavishly. He ends up giving away all his family’s possessions to the poor – temporarily losing his devoted but exasperated wife in the process. There ensues a classic Italian “mad scene”, worthy of a Donizetti opera: Luciano sits alone, in an empty apartment, contemplating a cricket.
“This was going to be the hardest scene of all,” says Arena. “This is when I was going to have to act. This was training, this was work, this was learning off the other actors, who helped me get it right.” Arena’s most memorable scenes are soliloquies, markedly one when he emerges from the trials at the Cinecittà studios. “This comes from the prison work,” he says. “We don’t do much dialogue – most of Armando’s drama is monologue, directly addressed to the public.”
Scenes in which Luciano runs a fish stall “were filmed right near my neighbourhood,” says Arena. “But I didn’t tell anyone. If I had done, there would have been chaos. No one recognised me. If they had, there would have been too much commotion. Of course, I went to Barra, to see my family – but secretly – if they’d all have known, it would have been madness. I had to tell my sister to tell no one, and if anyone recognised me, stai zitto [keep quiet]!” They’re good at that in Naples. “I went back with mixed feelings,” he says. “I feel so proud of where I come from; but I left it the way I did, aged 23. There is positive Naples which I love, and negative Naples which I left. I will always be part of the things I love about Naples, but the negative is no longer part of me. For years I was that person, and for years afterwards – but now there is nothing of that person in me.”
Sometimes overlaying, sometimes underpinning, the film’s realism is that other tradition, of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, whereby reality is spiked with fantasy and grotesque. From this, Garrone takes his opening of the film, in order to pastiche a massively overblown wedding for Enzo, the returning star of Big Brother made good, and to send up the absurdity of the show generally.
This is important dramatically and politically – and says something fascinating about Italy, and about dissent. For all the omnipresence of Silvio Berlusconi and all he stands for, it remains a fact that if one goes into a branch of the Italian bookshop Feltrinelli, one beholds shelf after shelf of volumes that research and reveal the corruption in Italian society. The same can most certainly not be said of Waterstones, and our own politics, banks and all. And just as our great moments in cinema concern stammering monarchs, so the likes of Garrone choose to examine criminality, and now the fetid scourge of reality TV. There is real dissent in Italy, and in its gentle but piquant way, Reality is part of that.
Big Brother is an illusion,” says Arena. “Luciano had everything a man needs – a job, a wife and family, good friends and people in the square who really liked him. And he threw it all away – for what? For nothing – to go on television and make an idiot of himself, for a false ideal. I know people who’ve done Big Brother, who made it and did the show, and when it’s all over, they have terrible depression. They have the same madness as I have in the film. People think they can do everything immediately; have everything. But you can’t – and you end up in crisis.”
“It’s ironic,” he observes, “that it’s a film about being surveyed 24 hours a day, and that I’m supposed to be a prisoner. But I’m less of a prisoner than those people on television, and they go because they want to! To go on that schifezza [rubbish].”
“That,” adds Punzo, “is what life has become: the exultation of mediocrity. The message today is: this is your life, don’t try and leave it, and if you do – we’ll watch and control your aspirations.”
No one could have predicted the success of Reality, or the accolades that have been heaped on Arena’s performance. As well as the grand prix at Cannes, the film was a finalist at Toronto. In the UK and US, Arena’s performance has been likened to those by Robert de Niro, and his talent compared to that of Al Pacino. Even so – banned from leaving Italy – he was not able to join the cast on the red carpet on the Cote d’Azur, nor will he join them anywhere else outside his native land.
The fencing is done, Mercuzio is dead, but to be resurrected. Night has fallen on Volterra, but the stars are lambent, despite harsh lights around the fortress wall. I remember my father drawing pictures of the prison in his sketchbook in order to do an etching of the fortifications, and being quickly pounced on by gun-toting guards. That was 1972, on holiday, two decades before the Liberti boys were gunned down in Piazza Crocelle.
“Destroying things is easy – I know all about that,” reflects Arena as we stroll beneath the wall, footsteps resounding off it, “but creating things is hard.” Arena, according to the rather bizarrely agreed rules, must “check in” to jail at midnight. So we go for a beer, the murderer and I, in a cafe on a pretty square on the edge of town with a view across the rolling Tuscan hills vanishing into the night. I ask him why he doesn’t just escape. “Why would I do that?” he says. “Yes, we could be in Holland by tomorrow, but I’d be back in jail again, always afraid, looking around me. As things are, I don’t feel like a prisoner any more, just because I go to sleep in a jail. It’s all in the head, this so-called reality, freedom, whatever – all in the head, and in my head, I’m free.” Then, with half an hour to go before curfew, we have another beer and talk about goals that Maradona used to score for Napoli, back in the day.
Reality is released in UK on 22 March