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Arts & Life

How The Class Satire Of 'Human Capital' Bogs Down In Melodrama

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrizio Gifuni in <em>Human Capital.</em>
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrizio Gifuni in <em>Human Capital.</em>

Human Capital, Paolo Virzì's circuitous film about two interconnected Italian families, opens on a winter's night, when a waiter riding his bicycle home after working at a high school gala gets run off the road by an SUV that promptly flees the scene of the crime. The car belongs to Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), the teenaged son of wealthy hedge-fund manager Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), but it's not immediately clear who was driving it. That question never disappears from view in the film, but it becomes something of a sideshow as the movie cloaks itself in a whodunnit plot but is ultimately much more interested in heavy-handed social commentary.

After the crash, the film backtracks six months and introduces us to Serena (Matilde Gioli), Massimiliano's girlfriend, as she's dropped off at his house by her father, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio). Dino briefly meets Massimiliano's mother, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), snoops around the premises, and, after a game of tennis with Giovanni, successfully gets invited to buy into his hedge fund, an investment of several hundred thousand euros that the firmly middle-class Dino can afford only by lying to his bank in order to secure a loan.

Human Capital, adapted from Stephen Amidon's novel of the same name, outlines the shared fate of Dino and Giovanni's families by showing the events leading up to the accident from three perspectives: Dino, Carla, and Selena's. The schematic structure bears schematic results. Dino is befuddled, desperately naïve, unable to understand the social cues and mannerisms of Giovanni and his upper class friends. Carla is sentimental, self-pitying, passive-aggressive, all in contrast to the calculated and conniving behavior of her husband.

These caricatures grow wearisome through their proximity to each other. When Dino repeatedly interrupts Giovanni's board meeting, believing that the two share some kind of bond, the two men calcify into exaggerated contrasts: Dino dumb and sympathetic, Giovanni composed and heartless. The interaction, in which Dino realizes he has lost most of his investment and Giovanni responds with indifference, tells us little about class relations because these two never behave like credible representatives.

Sometimes, Virzì draws laughs from this vision of Italian society where everybody fits into class stereotypes. After convincing Giovanni to purchase, renovate, and reopen an aging theater, Carla puts together a board of governors made up of esteemed critics, professors, and writers. At their first meeting, one critic declares theater to be dead, while another board member, commenting on what plays should get produced, states that the working class is tired of "complex things that give them a headache"—to which a bemused Carla responds: "True... people are tired."

Virzì seems aware, then, that the same predictability that makes these complaints funny also makes them tedious, but Human Capital ultimately revels in equally garden-variety politics. The film's title refers specifically to the insurance industry's term for various factors that go into determining the worth of a human life when negotiating a settlement. Virzì makes that allusion abundantly clear by the end of the film.

But the movie is largely preoccupied with a more general and sensationalized exploration of the term. In the film's culminating chapter, which brings the characters' stories together at last, Virzì catalogues the abject behavior of some of his characters, who sell each other out at a moment's notice as money increasingly becomes the sole focus of their attention. In these scenes, moral corruption is not enough for Virzì; his characters must display a more debased perversity as well. Virzì equally embellishes the consequences that come with getting in the way of those obsessed with traditional capital; in these cases, misfortune isn't sufficient until it collapses into melodramatic tragedy.

Human Capital's principled outrage against the wealthy is overwhelming. But it's not particularly useful, in part because it's launched against a straw man, but also because, coated as it is in cynicism, it proves as cut and dry as the behavior that Giovanni and his ilk display and that the movie is so eager to deride.

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