“A masterful telling of how money corrupts anything it touches.”
Money, power, and greed are the general themes of Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital (Italian: Il capital umano), an Italian film based on the novel Human Capital by American author Stephen Amidon. While the book is originally set in Connecticut, the film happens in northern Italy where the economy goes spiralling downward. The financial upheaval and a road accident will intertwine two families and measure how they value their self-worth and the people they care the most.
The film opens begins on the eve of Christmas. A waiter working at a prestigious private school is cycling back home when he is hit by a car. The driver immediately flees, leaving the cyclist mortally wounded. After the short prologue, the movie then tells the story in four chapters. In the first chapter, we meet Dino Ossola (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a struggling local middle-class businessman. His fate soon changes when he meets the father of his daughter Serena’s (Matilde Gioli) boyfriend. Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni), always in expensive suits and silk robes, is the typical elite cunning business shark. Their simple tennis game becomes an opportunity for Dino to enter the volatile business world. With his borrowed seven hundred thousand Euros, Dino invested into a high-yield hedge fund. But six months later, Dino’s initial success turns sour.
In the second chapter, we are introduced to Giovanni’s glamorous wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), once an actress who left her craft to pursue the rich man. Upon passing the doomed local theater which is up for sale, she convinces Giovanni to buy it for her with the idea of restoring its former grandeur. Along the process, she strikes a romantic attraction with intelligent and passionate college professor Luigi Lo Cassio (Donato Russomanno) who is one of the theater’s trustees. With the economic downfall, Giovanni shocks her with the plan of simply selling the theater.
The third chapter is all about Dino’s beautiful and kind-hearted daughter Serena. Though she appears to be romantically involved with Giovanni’s spoiled son Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), she is not in love with him anymore. She has already set her heart to unstable and troubled Luca. But one Christmas eve, Luca makes a mistake that forever alters the lives of the two families.
Human Capital is neat, confident and tasteful. It’s storytelling is slick and stylish as it is told in chapters, going back and forth with the characters and through certain common events like the tennis game in the Bernaschi’s, a private school students awards ceremony and the road accident. Though each chapter has its individual character and world, they touch similar themes like the destructive charm of money and greed, the arrogance of the elite, the taunting of guilt, and how modern capitalism treats everything as raw materials. Each chapter is told in measured pace and with such intensity. Through all the drama, there is that lingering mystery that keeps the movie afloat – who hit the cyclist?
The film also succeeds with the strong and powerful performance of its cast, particularly with the three leads. With a comic-style delivery, Bentivoglio brings charming but devious desperation for Dino. As Serena, Gioli has shown both tenderness and harshness, all in the name of love. Ultimately, it is Tedeschi who stole the show. With Carla, she delivers the most affecting performance by giving profound understanding and emotion to her character. A woman once loyal to her craft, she was tamed by money and comfort. So when her idea failed, she breaks into a helpless soul but later summons the will to stand up. Efficiently, Tedeschi brings the range required for her role. Other main casts are also outstanding like Gifuni as the ruthless Giovanni and Andrea Bottazini as Dino’s supportive wife.
Though its ending is too overwrought and safe to cement its social mockery, Human Capital does well in portraying how money corrodes family, relationships and passions with its elegant cinematography, tight plot and praiseworthy performance of the cast. It is fast, riveting and self-reflective in the end.