By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood April 22, 2014 at 10:58AM
If you ascribe to the theory that European films have to be twice as good to get half as far in America — or to get here at all -- then some of the better filmmakers in Europe are currently on an angry tear about economic malpractice, privileged elites, cultural degradation and soulless capitalism. The Greeks, with no money to speak of, are in the middle of a cinematic insurgency. The French, always conflicted about money and power, have become more so. And this year's foreign language Oscar went to a film – Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" -- that was nothing if not a condemnation of trash-and-trauma years of Silvio Berlusconi, and the spiritual blight he carried like a virus.
Sorrentino's fellow Italian Paolo Virzi is not quite as overtly indignant as his Oscar-winning compatriot. And his "Human Capital" works as an intricately structured soap opera. But it is also a movie that rests entirely on the not-quite-chicken-egg question of economic crisis: What comes first? The crisis or the greed? There's no question raised in the script by Virzi, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (from the American writer Stephen Amidon's novel) that greed causes grief, and has caused the financial crises that brought on the Great Recession of 2008 and the subsequent downturn that continues to plague both Europeans and Americans (unless they’re on Wall Street). There's also no question here that while struggle may be good for the soul, the wrong people do the struggling.
"Human Capital," divided into three chapters and a coda, is not "Rashomon": Each episode is seen through a different character, with different details, but the causes and effects are essentially the same. Likewise the moral: A hunger for money does not bring out the best in people; too much money brings out the worst. (All the interconnecting, overlapping details suggest Kieslowski and some of his '90s copycats).
The film begins with a waiter on his bicycle being run off the road by an SUV. Unlike the collision, the character of the victim, and that of the vehicle, are not accidents. The waiter is coming from a banquet attended by all the principals; how they got there and where they go is revealed in the subsequent three chapters, all named after characters.
First up is "Dino." A middle-aged, divorced father of one, with a girlfriend who looks like Valeria Golino (it IS Valeria Golino!), Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) has a real-estate business, and all the makings of a world-class toady. His daughter, the teenage beauty Serena (the debuting Matilde Gioli) is dating Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), whose father, Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) runs Italy's most notoriously productive hedge fund. Dino wants in. He manages to sub as Giovanni's doubles partner after dropping off Serena, helping a gleeful Giovanni trounce an opponent; he inveigles his way into becoming an investor in the fund – using money he fraudulently borrows from a bank – and when things begin to go bad he whines like a baby. He's a repellent character. One wonders how he got such a great girlfriend, or raised such an admirable daughter.
But he's the first person we meet for a very good reason: In a movie coming out of Catholic Italy, he provides our mirror of guilt. Giovanni might be a bastard – he treats his son, and his sad and beautiful wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeaschi) worse than servants. He has bet on certain aspects of Italy's economy collapsing, and his unspeakable business practices are coming home to bite him. But as a member of the 1 percent, he's villainous without being particularly instructive. Dino, on the other hand, is a parable personified: Who doesn't want to be rich? Who wouldn't stoop as low, in the odds seemed so much in our favor?
Stooping, in her own way, is Carla, and Bruni Tedeschi gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman with no confidence in her own intelligence, only in her maternal instinct: When, in "Carla," Massimiliano is accused of the hit-and-run that starts the film, she morphs in a warrior saint. Otherwise, she's a fading trophy wife, a woman of artistic disposition living with a man – and living very well – who regards her no higher than a scorpion regards a rosebush.
"Serena" is less about self-inflicted economic crimes, but no less about injustice. Unlike everyone else in the movie, the girl is a solid judge of character. She's kicking Massimiliano to the curb, and finds herself strangely attracted to the sketchy sketch artist at her high school, Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), who has a rep for being a drug dealer, but was only taking the heat for someone else. Serena's is the wrap-up chapter, and as such it has to bring a lot of narrative threads together into a coherent and disillusioning whole, but young Gioli is a vibrant presence. And just as "Dino" began the film on an almost satirical note, "Serena" raises the moral tone, and the energy and hope, even as the storyline finds its way into a moral bunker.
"Human Capital" works quite well as a conventional, if unconventionally structured, narrative, which may be why it's done so well in Europe. On the other hand, a movie that stokes righteous indignation seldom has a problem finding an audience. And if you're a movie inclined against entitlement and privilege, and income inequality, and the oligarchical inclinations of western governments, you shouldn't have any trouble finding an audience here.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Film Movement picked up U.S. rights to the movie ahead of its Tribeca premiere and have planned an early 2015 theatrical release followed by VOD. While the film could generate some solid returns in select theatrical markets, it will likely see most of its business on VOD.