Lost in Paradise: Three New Foreign Films Explore the Line Between Fantasy and Reality

It's somewhat comforting to think that the country that once gave us Fellini and Antonioni is as obsessed with tawdry reality TV as we are here in multiplex land. That's certainly the impression given by Reality (Oscilloscope Laboratories DVD and streaming), the most recent feature from Italian director Matteo Garrone. But, as you might expect from the man who directed the gritty mob flick Gomorrah, this is not the Hollywood take on the topic.

Reality scans like a comedy—cue jaunty score—though it isn't kidding around. Charismatic Neopolitan fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a bit too intense for that, despite his people-pleasing exterior. He seems to have a nice life—lovely wife and kids, pleasant apartment, thriving business—but what he really wants is to be on Grande Fratello, the Italian iteration of reality series Big Brother. He's seen the fame and riches that come with "being yourself" on television, and, with the encouragement of family and friends, he auditions for the upcoming season. But once the possibility of making it "in the house" comes up, he can't be content with just being himself off camera anymore.

Garrone retains Gomorrah's bedrock sense of realism, which only makes the literal bubble of television and its accompanying plasma-screen-vivid celebrity seem more unreal. And that only seems to compel Luciano more. Once his monomania locks in, the plotting feels a bit inevitable, but Reality nonetheless works brilliantly as a study of the aspirational hunger for the spotlight that we must increasingly fend off as stars of our own little self-conscious sagas in the current media age. It's a patient and clear-eyed work that confirms Garrone as a filmmaker to watch.

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl has made a career out of rubbing noses in foibles, and while he focuses on his workaday countrymen, the foibles translate to workaday Americans all too well. In Paradise: Love (Strand DVD), the first of an already completed trilogy of Paradise films to make it to domestic video, he tackles, well, as they say, what it says on the tin.

Middle-aged Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) bids her teenage daughter goodbye and sets off for a holiday at a beach resort in Kenya. In addition to palm trees and white sand, the resort offers European lady travelers a buffet of buff young locals—they literally line up on the other side of a rope line opposite a rank of baking housefraus. Teresa is giggly and bashful over the prospect of the sex tourism she has clearly been lured by, and then taken aback by her first encounter with a local man (Gabriel Mwarua). His inept, laser-focused eagerness doesn't feel like the love she's seeking. Dreadlocked Munga (Peter Kazungu) has more luck warming her up, though it's soon clear that his attentions are no less of a transaction.

If you're looking for a reference point, John Waters is a big Seidl fan. Not that the latter's films are anything like the former's—the Austrian is far more polished, and resolutely deadpan—but they share an attraction for onscreen grotesqueries, not to mention what they reveal about our true bents and desires. Teresa and her gaggle of fellow white Euros objectify the black Kenyans horribly, but the men exploit their doughy white "sugar mamas" right back. Tiesel's unglamorous, unshowy performance helps Seidl avoid the feel of a you-get-what-you-pay-for treatise.

Class tensions also lie at the heart of Post Tenebras Lux (Strand DVD), but reducing Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' film to the troubled relationship between affluent Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and the poor local (Willebaldo Torres) who does odd jobs for the urbanite at his country home, would seem to miss the point. How to factor in a scene in which Juan and his wife (Nathalia Acevedo) visit a grotty swingers club with rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp for a public mass tryst both tawdry and, ultimately, beatific? Or the scene in which Juan pummels the family dog at length, the blows landing just off camera and raising ghastly animal screams? Or scenes that follow a rugby match between various English-speaking youths on a muddy field, seemingly a continent away from the other events? Or the glowing red animated demon that stalks through now and then?

Reportedly, Reygadas played rugby during a stint in England. And the director uses his own house in the Mexican countryside to stand in for Juan's, and his own young children play Juan's as well. Several of his previous films, such as 2005's Battle in Heaven, similarly pursued a personal, internalized filmmaking language, and how well you connect with this film is likely to hinge on how much you feel like extending yourself to an experience that is striking, ominous, dreamlike, disconnected, and inscrutable. But doubtless because of the undefined personal connection, many of Post Tenebras Lux's uncanny individual moments are as powerful and confounding as anything else you're likely to see onscreen this year.