Based on Stephen Amidon’s novel set in moneyed Connecticut, Human Capital smoothly relocates to Italy’s wealthy north in an engrossing if anxiety-provoking tale about two families whose destinies are tied together by a road accident. Though director Paolo Virzi (who is also the director of the Turin Film Festival) is best known for intelligent comedies like his award-winning The First Beautiful Thing, there is very little to laugh about in this anguishing thriller set in a downward-spiraling economy. A top-flight cast gives the character-driven drama depth and conviction and the Italo-French coprod has gotten off to a strong start locally, despite its underlying grimness. It will come out in France next month and it should be on festival radar.
The term “human capital” is legalese that designates an accident victim’s net worth in compensation claims. Here it aptly defines the Bernaschi and Ossola families, the first elegant capitalists and the second struggling middle-classers. Dino Ossola (Fabrizio Bentivoglio, sporting a northern accent and impossibly bad hair) is an embarrassingly gauche social climber who mortgages the house to buy into the Bernaschi family hedge fund, while his wife Roberta (Valeria Golino) is pregnant with twins. Serena (Matilde Gioli), his daughter by a first marriage, attends the same swanky prep school as the Bernaschi’s lunkish son Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli) and the two are dating. Dino’s eyes are glued to the illusion of wealth as pure happiness.
Told in four “chapters,” each focusing on a different character, the film revisits the fateful rainy night of a school awards ceremony, when the Ossolas are invited to the VIP table of suave fund manager Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifune) and his wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The often-abused device of filming the same scene from different points of view is handled with great sophistication here, adding just enough new info to advance the ongoing tragedy as it settles gloomily around the protags, without giving away the finale.
But the film is more than just a chic thriller. Alongside its clear — at times overly so — depiction the pain and vanity of social inequality, Virzi and the fine cast explore the unhappiness of rich and poor alike in a society that measures a person’s value in terms of euros. There’s a Gatsbyish echo here, but the feeling is closer to Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 classy upper bourgeois meller I Am Love and its memorable portrayal of Italy’s top class. Here things are a bit more obvious, like the early scenes of class politics on the tennis court, or an alarming parade of black limos that heralds a decisive stockholder meeting.
Though not quite the vehicle for Bruni Tedeschi in the same way that I Am Love was for Tilda Swinton, it still gives B.T., who is very much at ease as a privileged lady of the manor, one of her best roles in a long time. Playing a fantastically limp trophy wife who once aspired to be an actress, her Carla is a beauty on the cusp, whose idealistic project to reclaim a boarded-up theater leads her to an absurd bid for sexual freedom with the wrong man. Echoes of Virzi’s signature black comedy can be felt in the biting cruelty of the seduction scene, played against the background of Carmelo Bene’s cult film Our Lady of the Turks. Likewise for Bentivoglio’s ludicrous real estate agent, too wrapped up in his pipe dream of social glory to care that his wife is having contractions.
Though Golino plays the warmest, most likeable character, her Roberta is the bland taste in this recipe. As the haughty arch-capitalist Giovanni Bernaschi, Gifune looks like he stepped off the cover of Class magazine; as bad as he is (his fund bets against Italy’s economic comeback, for starters), he is granted a human moment or two. Newcomers Gioli and Giovanni Anzaldo (a stage actor who has worked with Alessandro Gassman) inject life into offbeat teen characters and will certainly be heard from again.
Stylish production design by Andrea Bottazzini and Mauro Radaelli and Carlo Virzi’s highly suspenseful soundtrack complement French cinematographer Jerome Almeras’s visceral vision of northern Italy as something mid-way between a winter wonderland and a cold, heartless world ravaged by bad weather. The film got uninvited pre-release publicity when local politicians loudly protested against it, incensed over its supposedly negative depiction of the region of Brianza.
Venue: Barberini Cinema, Rome, Jan. 9, 2014
Production companies: Indiana Productions, Manny Films, Rai Cinema, Motorino Amaranto
Cast: Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Fabrizio Gifuni, Valeria Golino, Matilde Gioli, Guglielmo Pinelli, Giovanni Anzaldo, Luigi Lo Cascio, Bebo Storti
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Paolo Virzi, Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo based on a novel by Stephen Amidon
Producers: Marco Cohen, Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib
Coproducers: Philippe Gompel, Birgit Kemner
Executive producer: Fabrizio Donvito
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designers: Andrea Bottazzini, Mauro Radaelli
Costumes: Bettina Pontiggia
Editor: Cecilia Zanuso
Music: Carlo Virzi
No rating, 116 minutes.