American cinema has a long, successful history of watering down and re-packaging European novels and films, but Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital is a rare example of art adaptation flowing in the other direction. Based on an American novel dramatizing the impact of the global recession on several wealthy families, it was a massive hit in Italy, sweeping the country’s version of the Oscars. But watching the film through American eyes, something gets lost in translation.
The film opens in the suburbs of Milan with a case of vehicular manslaughter; a waiter is riding his bike home from a function when he’s driven off of the road. Virzì shows us the preceding six months through the eyes of several protagonists. There’s Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a middle-aged real estate agent who foolishly sinks his money into a hedge fund run by the millionaire father of his daughter’s boyfriend; Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), the millionaire’s aging trophy wife, struggling for meaning while trying to get a nonprofit theater off the ground; and Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino’s daughter, who breaks up with the millionaire’s son and falls for a troubled outcast.
It’s like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon by way of Paul Haggis’ much-maligned Crash, and its impact is closer to the latter. Human Capital strives earnestly to say something important about income inequality and class warfare. Dino’s naked desire to be part of the upper class motivates him to take unnecessary risks with his finances, but it’s hard to care about him. His thirst for wealth causes him to neglect his daughter and new wife (played marvelously by Valeria Golino), and when his inevitable comeuppance occurs, even the most understanding viewer will smirk at his downfall.
The women in the film are far more sympathetic in their futile search for love and connection. Tedeschi imbues the archetype of the millionaire’s bored housewife with a raw vulnerability as her fling with a local drama teacher brings a spark of passion into her drab existence. Serena is only a minor character in the first two thirds of Human Capital, but her romance with a mentally unstable orphan in the final reel deftly captures teenage love in all its simple and destructive passion.
But Virzì’s narrative tracks reduce these characters to mere props, and the film to a competent but minor murder mystery. The gimmicky, time-jumping structure of Human Capital may be novel in Italy, but here, Quentin Tarantino and his imitators have been using it for years. Had the story been told chronologically, it would have been an effective human tragedy. Instead, it reaches for a profound statement on subjectivity and disconnectedness in a modern world that it never quite grasps.
Human Capital opens February 27 at E Street Cinema.