Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital is an elegant and complex Italian film that I was surprised to find out was adapted from an American book – a surprise not derived from any familiarity with Stephen Amidon’ source novel but because of how well adapted it is to a new locale; a film so clearly a portrait of modern Italy addressing issues with class and money in a post-GFC (and more crucially, post-Berlusconi) climate. It’s a film that I mostly like, succeeding when interested in notions of class and society that are also well reflected visually, but it does suffer as it veers too heavily into a mostly uninteresting whodunit mystery, with a central reveal held off through a rather tiring and manipulative structure.
The film opens with an unnamed blue collar working logging off from work and cycling home late at night, before an approaching car’s headlights loom. There’s a collision, but it’s shot in such a way that we can’t tell much else – whether it was a planned attack or drunken mistake, or even (which in hindsight comes from technical imprecision rather than deliberate ambiguity) if there is one car or two. In any case, this event becomes the central mystery for this multi-character/perspective film that effects the lives of all the main characters, divided intro three sections, named after characters in the film – the first and perhaps strongest is ‘Dino’, where our titular middle class real estate agent is impressed by the ostentatious, Milanese wealth of the family of his daughter’s boyfriend, the Bernaschis. So desperate to be counted in their circle, he throws all his family’s savings into Giovanni Bernaschi’s (Fabrizio Gifuni) suspicious hedge fund – a rash and perhaps improbable decision, but Fabrizio Bentivoglio’s Dino captures a particular class desperation in Berlusconi’s Italy, a society characterised by a conflicting lack of social mobility and a collective aspiration for la dolce vita that wealth and connections promise.
This is all mirrored through the second segment, ‘Carla’ after Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s character, the wealthy and unstable wife of Giovanni. As our window into the world Dino has been dreaming about the second section acts as a great satire into the bubble of the hyper-rich – in the first third we only literally look into the Bruneschi’s home as outsiders, whereas the second segment takes us among their elite world. It looks different; like one of those depressingly underfurnished houses in MTV Cribs with visuals of cool, sterile surfaces amplifying a largely vacuous existence, compared with the cramped but homely feel of Dino’s more modest family home. Shots such as Carla swimming alone in an immaculate, near dystopian indoor pool speak volumes about her internal state. I haven’t addressed these dynamics fully, but the first two thirds of the film really capture the middle class frustration and the pitfalls of the rich.
Unfortunately the film unravels in the last third as the chapter of ‘Serena’ (Dino’s daughter, the link between the two families) feels largely perfunctory. I’m not generally a fan of Tarantino/Iñárritu diversions into multiple viewpoints, which can succeed, but more usually descend into Vantage Point levels of tedium and frustration where the audience is brought closer to a reveal, before being snapped back to square one starting with a new character – you can see the director pulling strings that breaks any feeling of an organically and seamlessly developing story. The satire and visual wit of the first two thirds gives way to tying together the central mystery, one which we haven’t really been that engaged with, which functioned better as a plot motivator that illuminated the attitudes and values of the other characters rather than a compelling mystery. Were I to bend over backward as a champion of the film, there’s an extremely tenuous argument that the audience’s disinterest as to the fate of the working class victim reflects our own complicity in the invisibility of the working class as part of a grander bourgeois myopia, but really it’s just pretty shoddy screenwriting. The prologue of the victim really needed to be a bigger part of the story, of his family’s grieving process, or even into interesting aspects that the film is silent on, like race. Instead, the main development in the last third is Serena’s relationship with the weird kid at school who guess what, isn’t that weird at all – essentially an only slightly less eye-roll inducing rehash of the guy who videotapes plastic bags in American Beauty. Worst still are the final frames of the film before the credits, of on screen text explicitly spelling out the film’s title and its thematic implications – it feels like a discursive footnote of an essay that the main body of the film (and especially the last half hour) had ignored.
With those reservations in mind it’s still a mostly successful film. The production is first-rate; it looks great and of particular note are the actors that succeed across the board, even some of the quite thinly written supporting parts are fleshed out by some great nuanced performances. Especially of note is the closest we have to a villain, of Fabrizio Gifuni’s merciless capitalist Bernaschi who intimidates and charms in equal measure, whose inner anxieties and motivations are masked by a veneer of sociability and that discrete charm the bourgeois are so known for. It’s a film I recommend, clearly engaged with the socio-economic climate of Europe and with a vision that is only hampered, rather than obscured, by its narrative missteps.