Paolo Virzi, the veteran Italian director of the new film Human Capital, got his coffee, and upon sitting down at our small table at the JW Marriott Suite, peaked over my shoulder, proceeded to guess the first question I was about to ask and then lovingly pinched my cheek in jest like a warm Italian uncle from Old Country. This is acceptable behavior when you’ve done hundreds of interviews and you’re twice the interviewer’s age.
Virzi’s 12th film is his darkest yet, a three-part story of intersecting narratives surrounding two families hurt by the financial crisis and an accident involving a biker who was killed in a hit and run. Across each of the three chapters, Virzi experiments with tone and genre, first sticking to his roots of social commentary and bitter, ironic comedy, then paying homage to Antonioni and finally concluding with more of a noir thriller.
Were the changing tones more pronounced in the film, Human Capital would be a perceptive look at how characters behave across genres of cinema, but instead they just seem like poor and occasionally implausible decisions. And while the story is intricate and engaging, it arguably uses its three-part structure as a crutch to build suspense, with Virzi very clearly setting up dominoes just so they can be knocked down in grand fashion. In the early going there are constantly people running around in the background doing things of consequence just off camera, as though the film is constantly winking at you.
Human Capital however has been widely acclaimed, and Virzi’s film has a large burden on his shoulders. Representing Italy as the country’s submission for the Oscars, Virzi wondered whether having Human Capital selected was a blessing or a curse. He asked me which other potential nominees I had seen. The first was the Palme D’Or winner Winter Sleep (read my capsule review from Tuesday’s recap), the second was Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (not yet) and the third was the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, which I had the privilege to see this very evening.
Marion Cotillard takes center stage in this film about Sandra, a woman fighting to keep her job after a debilitating bout with depression. The company has agreed to offer her 16 colleagues a bonus in place of her getting laid off, but she has the weekend to convince a majority of them to vote to keep her on payroll.
Cotillard has proven time and again that she can play glamorous or ordinary, and here we see her anchoring a performance about a woman on edge, struggling to keep her composure. It’s a great feminist document because it above all feels real. It’s not the story of a woman overcoming great odds and proving herself a champion, and it’s not about a woman being punished and put through the wringer. Sandra is desperately trying to avoid becoming a victim and a target of pity, slowly putting herself together even as her depression continues to take hold.
The Dardennes’ camera follows her closely and intimately, and like her steadfast character rarely breaks focus but always seems to quiver and falter. Every moment in the film is handled subtly and simply, with shocking turns of events that aren’t played for melodrama. And yet the tears still flow often, but they’re used in moments of uplift like when a man explains how hard it was for him to vote for his own bonus.
These are two very different films, and while one may be very intricate to the other’s minimal plot device, it’s remarkable to see how both are so deep and perceptive of social behavior.
1001 Grams is the story of a woman working at Norway’s national weights and measurements association, and it asks the too-on-the-nose question, what does a life weigh? Marie’s job involves her doing little more than calibrating scales and gas tanks, then slapping a new yearly sticker on the device to let people know she was there. She drives a ridiculously hexagonal smart car and her home looks half-lived-in following a divorce. When attending a particularly boring conference in Paris for “the mother of all kilograms”, what little life she has begins to unravel as she carries around her country’s kilogram, her one physical tie to something of substance. Bent Hamer’s somewhat silly drama has a hefty philosophical tone that doesn’t fully hold its weight but a charmingly spiritual ending that leaves us light on our feet.
The first Oscar submission from the country Mauritania, Timbuktu is a slice of life of the country Timbuktu’s militant occupation by Islamic rebels. Stringent religious sanctions are imposed on this small settlement, from music being banned to women needing to wear gloves. One cattle herder gets in trouble when he murders a man who killed one of his prized cows; this incident is a good example of the film’s grave sense of importance over a small-scale drama and characters we’ve spent little real time with. You wish the film could find a way to get to know these people a little better and separate itself from the fundamental religious institution that tends to dominate any cultural conversation or film about the Middle East and Islamic regions like Timbuktu.