“Human Capital” is a term used to assign a monetary value to an employee based on their knowledge, habits, personality, and creative and physical qualities. According to an insurance company, our lives have value, or in some cases very little.
Upon speaking with Paolo Virzi, the Italian director of his 12th and newest film Human Capital, he revealed he had calculated his own. Though he felt his value was awfully low given his age and his health, he’d agree that the real value of a human life is determined by the actions and behavior of humans that can only be considered priceless.
Human Capital is a three-part story surrounding a hit-and-run car accident as viewed by three different characters. It’s less Rashomon, more Amores Perros, capturing the dark edges, social commentary and young love embedded deep within the story. Following openings abroad, an American premiere in Tribeca and two recent screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival, Human Capital’s next stop could be the Oscars. Italy has selected the film as its submission to the Best Foreign Language feature category.
Virzi however is unsure whether this is a blessing or a curse. What Virzi is selling within Stephen Amidon’s American novel is much more cynical than what the Academy typically buys. But in speaking with Virzi, his own tone was anything but cynical. He talks in a thick Tuscan accent that gives added flavor to words like “Connecticut” and “algorithm,” and his eloquence provides hidden wisdom and complexity to his work. We spoke with him in Chicago about the financial crisis, about going darker on this film and the value of human life.
What drew you to this American novel by Stephen Amidon? It’s arguably an intrinsically American story, so how did you decide to transpose it to Italy?
I was trying to find a way to tell a spirit, an atmosphere, a moment, this very moment of the financial crisis and how it influenced the lives of people in terms of dreams, aspirations and expectations. I’m a great fan of noir and Anglo-Saxon literature. It uses genre just to explore a portrait of human beings in this moment.
When I first read the book, I was hit by that world, that Connecticut, that loneliness, that sense of meaningless of life, that sense of losing the value of human life, was so familiar. It means probably that the world is getting smaller, and that the globalization of the economy now gets the entire world into the same suburb of privilege. Of course in other parts of the world, people are still fighting with bare hands to attain the privilege of the other one.
It inspired me to make this North American thriller in Italy, which was also a way to combine different styles cinematically speaking. We changed a lot of things from the book in terms of pieces of the story, the location, the characters, and overall we changed the structure of the storytelling, breaking it into four chapters and telling the same tale from different views. We tried also to combine four styles. One was more Italian style, like a bitter comedy with social commentary. The second was more existential, Antonioni, French style. The third was more young-people noir, and finally the end chapter was to recollect the meaning of the movie and trying to make a big mythos for our times.
What were the challenges of creating that multiple chapter structure? Had you ever tried something like this before?
This isn’t something I invented of course. It exists in both classic and modern cinema, from Rashomon to Pulp Fiction. We thought it was an opportunity to play with the meaning of the movie with a secret meaning that not everything is exactly as it looks.
In an interview when Human Capital played at Tribeca, you said this was one of your darker films.
Probably. My previous movies, you could describe them as “dramedy”, with social questions but entertaining, but especially with a tender relationship with the characters and a warm look. This time I was not so tender; I was more acid. If I tried to feel some empathy, it was for the victims of the story of the younger generation. The young rich guy is probably the main victim, who has to live with expectations and anxiety of his family; he can’t fit in. He could be a good guy, but he has to be the winner. And there’s this girl Serena who secretly fights to follow her own desire, destiny and love, but she has to follow what her family expects of her.
Is there a character you most identify with in this story? They’re all flawed in their own ways.
There are no heroes here. They lie; they hide the truth. Even the most human character, Roberta the psychologist, she makes you suffer because she’s a psychologist and yet she doesn’t understand anything! Me as a viewer, I would tell her, “Are you stupid or what? Why don’t you understand what’s happening?” So I tried to put characters on the stage who make us suffer. They put us in anxiety.
How do you think American audiences will respond to it?
I don’t know. We’ve traveled around a few festivals in the States and we got excellent reviews in UK and Australia. This time we had the chance to test different audiences of the world. And the secret of this movie is, this is not only Connecticut. This could be every suburb in Italy or London or Switzerland. This feeling that we are fighting for a kind of wellness that doesn’t mean anything, the value of the human life is what is missing. To say something so emphatic and important in an entertaining way, the best thing to do was to try and make a neo-noir.
Now I don’t know if it’s lucky or a curse to be submitted as the Italian representative for the Oscars. I don’t know how to present the movie to the Academy Awards, and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say of this movie of greed to put its destiny on earning Money Money Money!
You close the movie with a title card on the term “human capital”. How do you perceive this term about the value of human life?
It’s true, and it’s actually a description from the book on how the insurance calculates the amount to reimburse the family of the victim. And I discovered there is an algorithm called “human capital” where they calculate your age, wealth and health. This hit me very much, because it’s not the fault of the insurance but of the system.
What was the experience of working with this cast?
I always enjoy working with different actors and actresses for the first time. Unfortunately I’m not a young director anymore. This is my 12th movie, and I’ve always had an incredible experience working with them, but this time was amazing for me to meet talent like Valeria Bruni Tedeschi or Fabrizio Bentivoglio, who’s able to be so disgusting and at the same time funny. Or even Fabrizio Gifuni. He’s very well known in Italy to have played the Pope and be the good guy, and now he’s asked to be a cold financial trader. And I was also very lucky to work with young actors.
The person who plays Serena, this is her first role?
Exactly, and the same with Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli). And you can see that. He’s not really an actor, but he emanates that kind of social and human feeling of being a real guy of a rich family. It’s his story. And Serena (Matilde Gioli), she was studying in her first year at university in philosophy. She had never acted before, not modeling, nothing. I just watched her on the street and was hit by the intensity of her look, and I was lucky she was good.