Film Review: Human Capital

Italy's entry for the Oscars' Best Foreign-Language Film is an unremarkable thriller elevated by a few excellent performances and Paolo Virzì's direction.

The veneer of class warfare in Paolo Virzì’s slick drama Human Capital derives from its setting—to outsiders, Milan is the world’s fashion capital, but to Italians, it is the seat of capitalism in a socialist country. This drab northern city is the home of Silvio Berlusconi’s media company and Italy’s stock exchange and, for Virzì, a theatrical backdrop for the super-rich and their acolytes. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay, cleverly scrambles its predictable story by filming it from the points-of-view of three major characters, all of whom play a role in the events leading up to a fatal accident.

Adapted from a novel by American author Stephen Amidon, Human Capital begins with a somewhat objective view of the death of a cyclist, and then moves back several months to the start of an implausible friendship between hedge fund manager Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) and parvenu real estate entrepreneur Dino Rovelli (Fabrizio Bentivoglio). The mystery that propels the plot is determining which of the characters is responsible for the death of the cyclist on an icy, winding road leading out of the city. For most of the movie it appears to be Massimilliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), Giovanni’s son, who, although a teenager, is already an alcoholic.

All of the protagonists are introduced in the first segment, shot from Dino’s perspective. While each is a stock character, the two women, Giovanni’s wife and Dino’s daughter from a previous marriage, are more charismatic than the pair of avaricious men. Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), an unhappy spouse and a former actress, accounts for the second segment of the movie, and teenager Serena (Matilde Gioli) for the third segment. Serena has been dating Massimilliano, but she breaks off the relationship long before the accident. Dino nevertheless takes advantage of it to meet Giovanni. His hedge fund, while risky, promises relief from Dino’s financial woes; he borrows against all his assets, which are in Serena’s name, to become an investor. Giovanni in turn takes advantage of Dino to inject some cash into his own failing enterprises.

Trumpeting its leftist view on the evils of capitalism, Human Capital moves at an entertaining pace. Excellent performances by Bruni Tedeschi and newcomers Gioli and Giovanni Anzaldo as Luca, Serena’s new love interest, elevate this mediocre thriller, as do all the technical aspects of Virzì’s direction, including the cinematography. In keeping with the movie’s ersatz dialectic, he portrays wives and daughters as collateral damage in the lives of their soulless husbands and fathers, but the women are also props, beautiful and sexy, who end up naked in the obligatory sex scenes.

It is interesting to note that Amidon’s novel is set in Connecticut, which speaks to its generic appeal, and to Human Capital’s potential for “cinematic capital.” The true mystery here is why Italy chose the film as its official entry for the Academy Awards when Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Le Miraviglie) would have been the obvious choice. That sublime, original movie won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014.

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