Human Capital (Il capitale umano)

Italy (2013) Dir. Paolo Virzì

Money. Does it make the world go round or is it the root of all evil? Either way an undisputable fact is that money does give you power, the abuse of which gives birth to greed. In Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel Human Capital this is just one facet of this elliptical tale of intertwining fates of two families, relocated from the US to Italy by director Paolo Virzì.

Dino Ossola (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) runs a small estate agency but finds himself in awe when he takes his teenage daughter Serena (Matilda Gioli) to a date with her boyfriend Massi (Guglielmo Pinelli), at his huge family estate. While Dino’s meeting Massi’s mother Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is abrupt he gets to spend the morning with his father, hedge-fund manager Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni).

After impressing Giovanni with his tennis skills, Dino sits in on the post match business conversation and asks to invest in one of the schemes discussed. Giovanni reluctantly allows Dino to come in with a €700,000 investment which Dino funds by remortgaging his business with his house as collateral, unbeknownst to his pregnant wife Roberta (Valeria Golino). Of course the deal goes south leaving Dino with many problems.

In case this sounds like a run of the mill melodrama, allow me to pour cold water on that thought just as Paolo Virzì does with his construction of the narrative. The film actually opens with a waiter, Fabrizio (Gianluca Di Lauro), leaving his job during the clean up after a gala event on Christmas Eve, but as he cycles away into the night he is run off the road by a car and left for dead.

Virzì then breaks the film down into separate chapters focusing on one particular character, telling the story from three alternate perspectives and revealing further pieces of the puzzle to bring us closer to finding out who the driver was and how the accident came about. Not the first time this format has been employed but the intricacies of the plot and the heavily flawed characters lend themselves to such treatment.

The three featured players are Dino, Carla and Serena and their stories are all different with little in the way of an obvious common bond beyond the relationship of the two teens until the accident, with pure circumstance providing an interim link. The above summary details Dino’s arc, while Carla’s shows us a woman stifled by her luxury lifestyle and domineering husband for whom money and control are his paramount concerns.  

Carla, a former actress, wants to buy and renovate a small theatre which Giovanni agrees to but secretly has other plans to make money out it, crushing his wife’s dreams and driving her into in the arms or her writer friend Donato (Luigi Lo Cascio). Her arc reveals just how much of a spoiled and disrespectful brat son Massi is, openly rude and aggressive towards his mother while scared of his father.

When Fabrizo’s accident becomes national news Massi is the prime suspect but because of his drunken state the night before he can’t remember the truth and implicates Serena and other friends of his, which they all refute. It is through Serena’s story that the answers are revealed and the final pieces of the puzzle are put in place en route to the film’s ambguous conclusion.

After being a mere pawn in other perspectives Serena is revealed to be quite a pivotal figure in the story, unwittingly having a profound effect on more lives than just Massi’s, which takes in a rather rushed relationship with troubled artist Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), a patient of Serena’s stepmother Roberta.

To fully understand the title and its relevance to the plot Virzì shares this significance with us just prior to the end credits, revealing a cynicism about the judicial system and how little the cost of a human life matters to the rich whose avarice and selfishness drives them to find a way to spend the least amount in quashing a problem they’d normally throw millions at.

While this is a central theme, the subplots explore the damage such greed causes and shines a rare spotlight on the emotional stress experienced by those deep at the heart of the situation. Carla is a perfect subject matter in that respect, a woman who should by default enjoy the support and same successes as her husband yet is no less a pawn in his pernicious games than an easy mark like Dino.

It is rather fascinating to note that each character is pretty much designed to represent their role in the story with such precision it borders on the caricature but the exceptional acting prowess of the cast quickly dilutes this cynical feeling. With his nerdy appearance and gauche manner Dino is the perfect fall guy but Fabrizio Bentivoglio brings a nice touch of pathos to his portrayal.

The audience can see quiet clearly from the onset that Giovanni is an elitist louse, a role which Fabrizio Gifuni revels in while maintaining an external panache about him. French-Italian actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi gives arguably the most layered and rich performance as Carla, a woman unravelling before our eyes, juxtaposed by the humble poise of Valeria Golino as the grounded Roberta.

Making an impressive account for herself is newcomer Matilda Gioli who picked quite a challenging debut role in Serena. Looking like a young Eva Green, Gioli is the chameleon of the cast, presenting Serena as a staid schoolgirl, a spoiled teen and later the only true level headed character who finds herself at the centre of a number of combustible crises.

How much change from the original novel the relocation from American to Italy incurred I can’t say but for those us unfamiliar with the source material Human Capital is a slickly made, always engaging and astute film that feels intrinsically Italian which I think says plenty about how universal the central themes really are.

Definitely worth an investment of your time.


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