Italian writer-director Paolo Virzi adapted an unusual source material for his latest film, the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film submission Human Capital. It’s based on an American neo-noir of the same name by Stephen Amidon, its cruel, suburban-set machinations of fate and avarice reimagined in Brianza, an upper-class enclave north of Milan. It’s here that its characters careen toward abysses of greed and amorality, in an ingeniously structured story that encompasses the full spectrum of Italy’s class structure.
In the subjective style of Rashomon and Go, Virzi and his co-screenwriters divided Amidon’s story into four “chapters,” the first three of which are told from different characters’ point of views and cover the same six-month period. In the first, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a middle-class rube with aspirations of six-figure bankrolls, borrows a fortune to invest in a hedge fund, which inevitably goes sour.
In the second, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), the bored and neurotic wife of Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), the hedge fund’s callous CEO, finds her muse when she uses her husband’s illiquid assets to restore a historic theater. And in the third, Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino’s daughter, takes up a relationship with a depressed but talented artist. All three narratives coalesce into a car accident that injures the movie’s lone working-class denizen — an incident that remains cloaked in mystery until the final reel, which is presented from a more traditional, omniscient point of view.
One of the byproducts of Virzi’s structure is that it offers an implicit commentary on capitalism’s One Percent and their delusional sycophants. It’s telling that Giovanni appears throughout most of Dino’s story, because the manipulable Dino is resting his future on his ersatz friendship with the capitalist. It’s just as telling that Dino appears as an infrequent burden in Carla and Giovanni’s story — an obnoxious insect at best, a non-entity at worst.
For most of the running time, the narration isn’t unreliable so much as incomplete. Virzi’s film works because it requires our brains to fill in the missing pieces, and it plays with our assumptions before subverting them with new information. At the same time, its subjectivity provides its audience with a leg up in certain situations: Because we’ve already seen moments play out from different points of view, some characters’ confusion becomes our clarity, our “a-ha” moment.
Though its implications are tragic, Human Capital is narratively satisfying — its intricate structure handled masterfully, with no obvious temporal or logical gaps. Unfortunately, the movie’s final shot lands too softly, a merciful dénouement that undercuts its appropriately savage cynicism.
But you can forgive Virzi for his glimmer of hope in an ocean of moral rot, because every step of the way, the film succeeds at keeping us on our toes. Moreover, it coldly analyzes capitalist sociopathy, free of scolding lectures. It’s a movie about the death spiral of wayward choices, the split-second decisions that could have saved a life and, most importantly, the motivations behind those decisions. Even without its stylishly fractured storytelling, the themes of Human Capital would hit us like a punch to the gut.
HUMAN CAPITAL (IL CAPITALE UMANO). Director: Paolo Virzi; Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Matilde Gioli, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Fabrizio Gifuni, Guglielmo Pinelli; Distributor: Film Movement; in Italian with English subtitles; Opens: Today at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, the Tower Theatre in Miami, and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables.