Convicted killer in firing line for Cannes acting award
He has been hailed as an unlikely blend of Robert de Niro, Mr Punch and Toto, Italy's best-loved comic actor. Aniello Arena is a strong contender for the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival 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.
There's just one catch, however: he is a convicted Camorra assassin, serving a life sentence in a Tuscan jail for his part in shooting dead three men on the streets of Naples 20 years ago. He is the only member of the film's cast who is absent from Cannes as the festival builds towards the awards ceremony tonight.
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 he was 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 criminal organisation of Naples, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008.
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," said Mr Garrone.
"It was he (Arena) who really developed the character. He gives an extraordinary interpretation of a very complex role."
The actor was allowed out of prison in the mornings to work on the film, in Naples and Rome, but had to return to his cell -- or the nearest detention facility -- each evening.
"He's highly professional," said Armando Punzo, the founder and director of the 50-strong Fortezza prison theatre company. "He's able to pull off pretty much any role you can give him.
"He's recently appeared in Hamlice, a cross between Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland. He's acted in theatres across Italy," Mr Punzo said.
"He's had an incredible journey, whether or not he wins the best actor award."
Being feted alongside the likes of Brad Pitt, Kanye West and Nicole Kidman, all of whom have appeared at Cannes this year, is a far cry from the bloody confrontation that resulted in Arena's incarceration. He was part of a five-man Camorra group that shot dead drug dealers over unpaid debts in Barra, a working-class neighbourhood on the eastern fringes of Naples, on January 8, 1991.
Armed with pistols and a Kalashnikov, the hit men shot dead three men playing cards in a bar. But they were not the only casualties. A boy of eight who was playing nearby was caught in the crossfire and wounded, while an 80-year-old woman who witnessed the attack from her balcony dropped dead of a heart attack.
Arena, then 24, was tracked down nearly a year later. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In Reality, the only Italian entry among 22 contenders for the Palme d'Or, Cannes' top prize, Arena plays a garrulous fishmonger infatuated with television fame.
Entering the Big Brother house becomes an ambition that takes over his life and he starts to imagine that inconsequential events are in fact tests set by unseen television producers.
Under Italian law, Arena may have to spend another decade in jail. But the success of the film, and the tantalising prospect of winning the best actor award today, has distanced him further from the darkest chapter of his life.
"I turned over that black page in my life a long time ago and I am no longer that man," he said.
© Sunday Telegraph