Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital had the very good fortune to be chosen as the Italian entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It has the slightly bad fortune to be opening the day after not getting nominated. Don’t feel too sorry for Virzi: At the David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent, Human Capital won in seven categories, including Best Picture.
The title phrase refers to the monetary value of a particular lost life — including both projected income and emotional impact (however the hell that’s determined) — used by courts to evaluate awards in wrongful-death suits. The concept may make a certain cold sense and serve a useful purpose, but it still has a bad smell.
The film opens with a server at a big awards banquet getting hit by an SUV in the dark of night. The car at fault flees in panic, thereby compounding the driver’s guilt.
Virzi then jumps back six months to show us the complicated economic, social, and romantic connections between two families whose members are suspected of being responsible. The film is divided into four chapters, the first three of which are attached to the POVs of different characters.
First up is realtor Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who lives a comfortable middle-class life with his twenty-ish daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) and his second wife, Roberta (Valeria Golino), a psychologist. Serena has been dating Massimilliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), the spoiled son of fabulously wealthy hedge fund manager Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni). The hedge fund is financially way out of Dino’s league, but he insinuates himself into friendship — or what he sees as friendship — with Giovanni and into an insanely risky investment.
When the chronology gets to the accident, Chapter II throws us back in time to cover more or less the same period as seen by Massimilliano’s discontented mother, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi); Chapter III focuses on Serena; and the final chapter is from a more “objective” perspective. Each section fills in bits of missing information that cast suspicion on different characters.
The structure may sound a bit like Pulp Fiction, but it’s much more like Rashomon — multiple versions of one story rather than three stories with some overlap.
The first chapter is the most problematic, because we’re stuck in the head of a fool. Bentivoglio perfectly portrays a recognizable variety of jackass. Dino has no idea what a complete buffoon he is; he thinks he’s a smart operator, but everyone — including the audience — cringes at his social gaffes. His insistence on betting everything on the hedge fund is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
It’s a relief to get to Carla’s chapter. She is equally pathetic, but she knows it; she may be depressing, but at least she’s not aggressively intrusive like Dino.
The film is based on an American novel of the same name by Stephen Amidon. Virzi has smoothly moved the action from a Connecticut bedroom community to a Milan suburb. The plot has the ring of 1950s potboilers like Peyton Place and The Young Philadelphians — not necessarily a bad thing — but Virzi’s cut-photocopy-paste assembly of the story elements adds an extra level of intrigue and narrative tension.
Virzi has a clear leftish perspective, with brickbats at the social habits of the bourgeoisie, both petit and grand. But when it comes to family dynamics, he’s an equal-opportunity critic: There is a third home, broken and living just above the poverty line. Like the first two, it includes a narcissistic manipulator, who dominates and uses the others. Not a pretty sight.