Human Capital

December 6, 2014
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in 'Human Capital' (2013)
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in 'Human Capital' (2013)

Although the Berlusconi era may have rendered Italy an economic ruin and a political laughing stock, it has given rise to an exceptional cinematic legacy. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) was a masterful portrait of decadence and excess, set against the eternal elegance of Rome. Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital unfolds in the wealthy regions near Lake Como, where the landscape provides a backdrop for a tale of corporate intrigue, human tragedy, greed and deceit.

Told in four chapters, the film begins with a prologue in which a cyclist dies after being forced off the road on a rainy night by a speeding car. This acts as the catalyst for a crisis that will engulf two families from different ends of the social spectrum whose destinies are entwined by the relationship between their children.

The first chapter takes us back to a time before the accident, as Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a small-time real estate agent, drops his daughter, Serena (Mathilde Gioli), at her boyfriend’s house. The magnificent estate belongs to Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), a hedge fund broker, and it sends Dino wild with envy and admiration. Giovanni needs a fourth for tennis, and Dino eagerly agrees. Soon he is asking about the deal Giovanni and his colleagues are hatching and wanting a slice of the action. To raise the capital he will lie to the bank and mortgage his house, babbling like a man whose fortune is already made.

The second chapter follows Carla, Giovanni’s ageing trophy wife, (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who lives a pampered, aimless existence – all massages, manicures and home decorating. She is searching for a cause to champion and believes she has found it with a plan to rescue a historic theatre from the developers. This scheme will only survive until Giovanni’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, sending his family – and the hapless Dino – to the brink of financial ruin. At the same time Carla embarks on a farcical affair with a self-centred professor, motivated by insecurity rather than passion.

Chapter three takes Serena’s point of view, resolving the mystery of who killed the cyclist, and detailing her gradual separation from Giovanni and Carla’s son, Massimiliano (Gugliemo Pinelli). The concluding chapter brings everything to a suitably cynical resolution.

Purposeful and intelligent, Serena is the closest thing to a sympathetic character in a film in which Giovanni is hardly more than a slick corporate crook; Dino a blustering buffoon; and Carla a pathetic puppet trying to pull her own strings. None of the minor personalities fair much better, although Dino’s wife, Roberta (Valeria Golino) comes across as honest and dull.

Each of the main actors excels in these ghastly roles. Gifuni’s Giovanni is a heartless powerbroker who can turn on the charm when it suits. Bentivoglio is cringe-inducing as Dino, the little man with outrageous ambitions and vulgar manners. With every appearance he seems to grow more grotesque.

Bruni Tedeschi is spelbinding as Carla, the rich woman tortured by her weakness and sense of worthlessness. She needs to feel she is loved and valued, but doesn’t know how to escape the prison that Giovanni’s wealth has created. Her son, Massimiliano, is just as confused, being utterly dependent on Serena to hold his hand even after she has called a halt to their romance.

The story is based on a novel by American author, Steven Amidon, set in Connecticut at a time when the stockmarket was going through the roof. Virzi’s adaptation adds plenty of local colour, while showing that the financial misdeeds of Wall Street had echoes in Italy. It is a portrait of a world where fortunes are made and lost by speculation, while the value of a human life – the “human capital” of the title – is rapidly diminishing.

One may tease out the political moral from the story, or simply enjoy it as a drama of power and money that is by turns a thriller, a mystery and a black comedy. When released in Italy the film was attacked by the left for being insufficiently censorious of capitalist evils, and by the right for its negative portrayal of the moneyed classes. When a director can offend both sides of politics while reaping awards at film festivals he must be doing something right.

Human Capital
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Written by Paolo Virzi, Francesco Bruni & Francesca Piccolo, after a novel by Stephen Amidon
Starring Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Matilde Gioli, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Fabrizio Gifuni, Gugliemo Pinelli, Valeria Golino, Giovanni Anzaldo, Luigi Lo Cascio
Italy/France, rated MA 15+, 111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th December, 2014.