The HBO film “Cinema Verite” ultimately has a bit of a Matryoshka doll quality: Named for a style of documentary filmmaking, it's a fictional drama shot in semidocumentary style about the groundbreaking documentary series “An American Family,” the 1970s public-television miniseries considered the forefather of reality television.
It's a bizarre viewing experience, especially since “Cinema Verite” ultimately has a tantalizing conundrum: “An American Family,” the sort of prize inside this set of cinematic nesting dolls, has been little seen since it was a record-busting hit for PBS back in 1973. Reportedly due to music licensing issues, only a two-hour 40th anniversary edition highlight reel released in 2011 is available on DVD. So, if it was before your time as it was for mine, you've probably seen only snippets if you've had any experience at all with the 12-hour documentary.
In the era in which reality TV has become such a dominating part of American culture, “Cinema Verite” tells a timely cautionary tale for both viewers and would-be subjects about how the camera distorts and changes what it records, particularly when private moments are aired for public consumption.
Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (2003's “American Splendor”) assemble a sterling cast, headed by Diane Lane as Pat Loud, the smart, strong-willed matriarch of the affluent Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1971, she meets documentary producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), who wants to shatter the shiny-happy illusion of period sitcoms like “The Partridge Family” and film the inner workings of a “real” American family. He charmingly appeals to Pat's interest in Margaret Mead's study of primitive cultures, but his attraction to her, his lingering bitterness about the dissolution of his own marriage and his desire to tell a dramatic story that will rivet viewers prompt him to cross ethical lines in the filmmaking.