Stylish and captivating Italian drama "Human Capital" is a perfect opener for this year’s PIAF film season
Human Capital (or Il Capitale Umano in Italian) begins in medias res: Somewhere in the cold, dark night of northern Italy, a cyclist is mysteriously veered off the road by an unknown jeep. The rest of the film then backtracks and unfolds the mystery by following two families with contrasting social standings in the events that lead up to that fateful incident.
Director Paolo Virzi presents the story of Human Capital in four “chapters”: dedicating each of its first three chapters to the point of view of a different key character in the mystery, before letting their perspectives converge on the final segment. By employing this unconventional narrative structure, Virzi is able to provide us with a sweeping portrait of the characters in this film. The film’s laser focus on the perspective of a certain character means that we get no reprieve; it forces us to perk up and pay attention to one character (whether we find them likable or not) as their arc unfolds before moving on to the next one.
This is a bold storytelling choice, as it is not without its risks. The risk with separating the film into distinct character storylines is that some of the storylines will be more engaging than others. For example, Chapter 1 focuses on Dino (brilliantly played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a weaselly, Jerry Lundegaard-esque middle-class real estate agent with a blinding thirst for financial success and social status. While dropping off his daughter, Serena (Matilde Gioli) at her boyfriend’s family mansion, Dino bonds with the boyfriend’s father, successful hedge-fund manager Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) via a tennis match with his business partners. After having been seduced by the Bernachi family’s wealthy lifestyle, Dino decides to buy into what he believes to be a highly profitable investment scheme by Giovanni’s hedge fund at any cost; even if it means mortgaging all his assets without his pregnant wife, Roberta’s (played by the talented Valeria Golina, who made an impressive directorial debut with her film “Honey” last year) knowledge. Dino’s storyline works well as an entertaining piece of social satire. However, the character’s relentless sleaziness, while humorous in mild doses, could come off as grating after a while, especially when his presence dominates the first quarter of the film.
Human Capital’s unconventional narrative structure truly shines in Chapter 2, which revolves around Giovanni’s wife, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, in an award-winning performance), her naive attempt at restoring a run-down theatre to its former glory, as well as the cruel realities and disillusionment she is forced to confront in the process. Easily the most interesting and affecting storyline in the film, Carla’s character arc is a beautifully written, directed, and performed subversion of the “trophy wife” trope.
Chapter 3 plays more like an angst-ridden teen drama, focusing on Serena as she starts to fall in love with a troubled but charming Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), and out of love with the Bernaschi heir, Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli). Giolo proves that she could hold her own storyline with her solid breakout performance as Serena.
In addition to being an engrossing character study, Human Capital is also a searing indictment of capitalist greed, both from the perspectives of the wealthy perpetrators, represented by the hedge-fund manager Giovanni, as well as the people who idealize it, represented by Dino’s pathological desire for financial success.
However, the film disappoints when it comes to the build up and reveal of the mystery it sets up in the beginning. The decision to frame the accident as a whodunit mystery feels slightly ham-fisted in its execution, and ultimately unnecessary considering the already intricate and interweaving storylines among its characters.
Italian neo-noir Human Capital is a riveting character study and cleverly crafted social contemplation of contemporary Italy disguised as a mediocre whodunit.
3.5 out of 5 Steve Zissous