London: Italian actor Aniello Arena is a strong contender for best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, but the only problem is that he is serving a life sentence in prison.
He has been hailed as an unlikely blend of Robert de Niro, Mr Punch and Toto, Italy’s best loved comic actor.
Arena is nominated for his starring role in ‘Reality’, a film about a fishmonger who becomes obsessed with appearing on Grande Fratello, the Italian equivalent of Big Brother.
However, Arena is a convicted Camorra assassin, serving a life sentence in a Tuscan jail for his part in gunning down three men on the streets of Naples 20 years ago.
He is the only cast member absent from Cannes as the festival builds up to its climax on Sunday evening, when the awards will be announced at a lavish red carpet ceremony.
He was allowed out of prison on day release to make the film, but permitting him to enjoy the bright lights and cocktail parties of Cannes was regarded as a step too far, even for Italy’s famously lenient judicial authorities.
The 44-year-old Neapolitan has trodden an extraordinary path since being arrested for the killings on Christmas Eve, 1991, and given a life sentence for murder.
Twelve years ago, having never acted in his life, he became part of a prison theatre company called Fortezza (Fortress) and soon became one of its star actors.
There he was discovered by Matteo Garrone, 43, a director who achieved international success with ‘Gomorrah’, a grim portrayal of the Camorra mafia of Naples which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008.
Garrone had spotted the former Camorra ‘soldier’ during a season of summer theatre at Volterra prison in Tuscany.
He was keen to give Arena a part in Gomorrah, but judges ruled that the subject matter was too close to the inmate’s real past and that his involvement was inappropriate.
“The second time around, however, perhaps because Reality is more like a fable, the judge gave his permission,” the Telegraph quoted Garrone as saying.
“It was he (Arena) who really developed the character. He gives an extraordinary interpretation of a very complex role. This is a man who, having been in jail for nearly 20 years, has discovered a world that he had no idea about.
“He has a face that is a cross between Pulcinella (the 17th century commedia dell’arte character that inspired Mr Punch), Toto and De Niro,” he added.
Arena’s character is a man stuck in the drab routine of real life who yearns to be a celebrity.
The actor was allowed out of prison each morning to work on the film, in Naples and Rome, but had to return to his cell – or failing that, the nearest detention facility – each evening.