The Italian Almanac

Aniello Arena

The Prisoner

Prisoner-turned-film-star Aniello Arena hailed the success of Reality, the Italian film that landed the second prize at the Cannes Film Festival Sunday - the same award that director Matteo Garrone won four years ago for his Neapolitan mafia pic Gomorrah. "I'm happy for Matteo, myself, cinema and Italy," Arena told reporters in a thick Neapolitan dialect from his home near the southern Italian city. I'm out on leave, at home," from a jail in Volterra, Tuscany, where he is serving life for his part in a Naples massacre 20 years ago, Arena explained.

"I'd really like to thank all the people who gave me permits to work over the last 10 years," said the 44-year-old, who was let out of prison to film the tale of a Neapolitan fisherman dreaming to be on a TV reality show but was unable to attend the Cannes awards 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.

Arena has taken an extraordinary path since being arrested for the killings on Christmas Eve, 1991. 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. Garrone spotted the former Camorra "soldier" during a season of summer theatre at Volterra. He was keen to give Arena a part in Gomorrah, but judges ruled that the subject matter was too close to the inmate's own past.

Garrone, 43, paid tribute to the "breath of reality" that Arena's performance gave the film, which he described as "the polar opposite of Gomorrah", the gritty Camorra story based on Roberto Saviano's bestelling book. Arena, a convicted Camorra assassin who was jailed for his part in gunning down three men on the streets of Naples 20 years ago, was the only cast member absent from the awards ceremony.

The jury at the 65th Cannes Film Festival was chaired by cult Italian director Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d'Or with The Son's Room in 2001. Garrone came second to Michael Haneke who won his second Palme d'or in three years with Amour.