Human Capital is a dull melodrama told from several different perspectives, which don’t so much compete with each other but simply remember different elements of the tale. The conceit is baffling and the result is utterly forgettable; it is a film that wants to be a devastating critique, but really doesn’t know how.
Director: Paolo Virzì
Screenplay: Stephen Amidon, Paolo Virzì, Francesco Bruni, Francesco Piccolo.
Runtime: 111 minutes.
Cast: Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Matilde Gioli, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Guglielmo Pinelli.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: Told from four different perspectives, all interconnected, the drama of the film centres around the injury of a cyclist in a car accident under suspicious circumstances. Implicated are the wealthy Bernaschi family, and their teenage son Massimiliano. At first it appear that his girlfriend Serena is covering up for him after he drove home drunk from a party, however the truth turns out to be much more tangled. Enter Serena’s parents, who also have financial dealings with the Bernaschi family and wealthy friends also trying to cover their own hide.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Review: Human Capital (Il capitale umano) makes a federal case out of a simple legal principal within the law of torts; we call it ‘wrongful death’ in Australian and British law, where dependants and other parties are entitled to compensation if a loved one is killed. How much compensation depends on a fairly ghoulish calculation linked to earning potential, financial commitments, and a whole load of other factors. In the face of a terrible tragedy, this is the best way that the law has for ensuring that the compensation is fair, even though it can never replace the loss of a human life. Paolo Virzì finds this grossly objectionable; and turns that simple legal principal into what he thinks is a stunning indictment of the wealthy in Italy, while seemingly hoping it will travel well and play to themes of rising inequality within the world. It doesn’t; because ultimately the critique as he paints it has no teeth, and is far too steeped in fetishising the very lifestyle he is trying to explode. It reminds one of Jessica Pare’s communist father from Mad Men; speaking with disdain of their opulent lifestyle, but secretly envying it.
Virzì’s structural innovation is narrating the tale in four parts from three character’s perspectives; a structure rendered into cliché as soon as Kurosawa made it unforgettable in Rashomon. Here it is used in an echo of that old Polish joke, where the three Poles all remember the rape the same way. This happens in Human Capital to the point where Virzì wisely makes fade to black cuts within scenes to skip over dialogue we’ve all heard before and action we’ve seen already. One wonders why even bother having pretentious chapters; it all seems to be a mechanism to allow him to go back and forth in time, revealing new information – a technique coincidentally used far more effectively in another film within the festival, The Captive.
What does emerge is a pretty standard melodrama, which is meant to act as a critique of the wealthy and their hangers-on simply due to the fact that the events happen to them, and they don’t handle them well. Virzì’s overall message simply seems to be that we all behave poorly and in our own interests when the chips are down, even if it adversely affects the lives of others. Father Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is criticised because he borrows money he doesn’t have, jeopardising his newly expanding family, to risk it in a hedge fund offering 40-50% returns (explicitly lying to get into the fund, which requires the investment only be 20% of the individual’s worth). Actress and wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is criticised for being aimless and living off her husband’s money, investing optimistically in a theatre restoration only to have to sell it when the chips are down and damaging her affair with a local intellectual (Luigi Lo Cascio). Her husband (Fabrizio Gifuni) is condemned because, as the echo of a Wall Street tycoon, he ‘bet on the downfall of this country and [he] won.’ Daughter and girlfriend Serena attempts to protect her lover, and in doing so impedes an investigation into an innocent man’s accident. And on it goes, with some gratuitous and faintly ridiculous sex scenes sprinkled in to titillate.
The secrets the film reveals, mostly concerning its own plot, aren’t that thrilling and feel terribly arbitrary – really, this hackneyed whodunnit could have been wound up any way you like, not a good sign for an audience that is supposed to be invested in the fate of its characters. It even allows itself the absurd luxury of dictating the fates of the characters in a neatly typed epilogue on black; as if these fictional inventions somehow had a fate of their own. It reminded me of the novelist John Fowles, when in his masterpiece The Magus he leaves the story inconclusive as to whether the two protagonists reunite in love or not. He once commented that he would get many letters and inquiries on the fate of the characters. If they were lovely little old ladies he would reassure them that of course, Nicholas and Alison were together forever. If the inquirer was rude or objectionable, Fowles would declare that absolutely not; they went to their fate unhappy and alone.
Unlike that masterpiece, at the close of Human Capital you simply won’t care.
Rating: Two stars.