The Social Fresco as Supermarket

in 17th Motovun International Film Festival

by Luminita Boerescu

For many viewers, Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital (Il capitale umano) is one of the best recent Italian films, a tale of authentic feelings: raw and realistic, with no downtime, since the film constantly engages the audience’s interest. On the other hand, some believe that this film is an attack on Italian values. However, whether they are for or against the film, no-one remains indifferent to it.

The film’s action, inspired by the book of the same name by American novelist Stephen Amidon, has been relocated to Lombardy in northern Italy. Two families, one rich and one middle-class, interact through the friendship of their teenage children. A car accident, which appears to involve one of the teens, changes the relationships in these families, revealing hidden truths about everybody. While this scenario might be regarded as just another spin on the subject of appearance versus essence, Virzi works well with this set-up, in a manner both analytical and naturalistic.

The film is composed of three sequences filmed from the point of view of different characters, followed by a conclusive representation of events. Each character perceives the accident differently, adding their own details and images to the experience. Virzi structures the film like a suspense thriller, where the audience must judge which party is guilty.

The first perspective comes from Dino Ossola, a real estate developer who is having financial problems due to the economic crisis. He aspires to match his daughter Serena with the son of the wealthy and powerful Bernaschi family. The second point of view is that of Carla Bernaschi, a rich and dissatisfied wife. She is a former actress who wants to use her husband’s money to renovate an abandoned theater. The third view belongs to Serena Ossola, Dino’s daughter. This young girl thinks she has found true love and is prepared to sacrifice everything for it. Her stepmother is a psychologist, who knows nothing of her husband’s affairs.

In this film, only the female characters are strong: although fragile, they are full of empathy, understanding, care and attention. By contrast, the men are confused, unable to process emotions, and falsely ambitious; even when they seem to gain an advantage, they end up as losers. They attempt to defend their women, without success. All of these people are a representation of today’s world, in that they lack the hope to try and better themselves. It is a bitter picture of a society without values, and this includes the church and the police. The only character who actually has dignity is Luca, a participant in the accident, but he is an outsider in the world portrayed by Virzi.

It has often been said that Virzi is a master of depicting pain and suffering; he enjoys catching the audience in a relationship of crude emotions. What kind of human dignity is possible in a world where material profit is the only goal and the judgment of a man is made on economic criteria?

Avoiding the stereotypes that this kind of film can involve — as seen in the Italian political cinema of the 70s — Virzi performs a forensic dissection of the characters’ social group. In this milieu, everyone knows how to use their instincts for greed, violence and oppression, even against their own families. Hugs may not really indicate love or affection…

This world is a theater in ruins, but it is also a profitable business and a supermarket! Virzi creates a powerful social fresco, evoking a narrative drama such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which is also dominated by obsessions and neuroses that remind one of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999). Human Capital can be considered a new form of neorealism, which best shows up today’s society. Dynamically this film is alert: it does not have breaks or excessive length. The narrative creates tension and everything is well-balanced. The whole film is, in fact, a symphonic orchestration, because of the way in which elements such as image and script interpretation are harmonized. Even the cars which appear in the film serve as characters, defining the personality and finances of their owners.

As Dino Ossola, actor Fabrizio Bentivoglio creates a compelling picture of a cunning, gum-chewing man: he intelligently portrays the duplicity of the character and plays subtly with Dino’s range of reactions, from stupidity to cowardice. But the most fascinating performance is by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, in the role of the rich, unhappy wife. Trying to find reasons for her existence, in search of herself, yet fragile and without courage, this character chooses to remain an empty-minded woman inside a gilded cage. Perhaps she realizes that she cannot run away from her own nature. All of these complex emotions are played with great delicacy and shading by Bruni-Tedeschi. The film’s other actors must also be mentioned for their performances: vibrant, intense, even pathetic.

As Virzi has explained, he constructed for this film a “frozen landscape, hostile and dangerous”, dominated by a pale sky and endless winter! Both cinematographer Jerome Almeras and composer Carlo Virzi clearly understood their director’s intentions. The strange atmosphere is also enriched in meaning by the subtle contributions of the production designers, Mauro Radaelli and Bottazzini Andrea. The result is an overwhelming atmosphere, which turns out to be very similar to the contemporary society we inhabit. It this society of which Paolo Virzi tells his fascinating and cinematic story.

Edited by Lesley Chow