Rightly or wrongly, we expect something different from the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars—something specific to the country that produced it, something that takes us out of the usual Hollywood way of making movies. Consider this year’s finalists, such as the Mauritanian Timbuktu—providing an interior African Islam-on-Islam view of extremism—or the Russian film Leviathan, confirming our own worst impressions of Russian bleakness.
Films that have won have usually satisfied a taste for otherness. The stark neorealism of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (the 1947 winner), for example, expressed the poverty and desperation of postwar Italy just as The Lives of Others (the 2006 winner) told a deeply German story. Last year, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s 142-minute-long The Great Beauty won both because it was big, ambitious, and visually arresting and because it was a movie that could not have been made in this country. It seemed to express the particular desperation of Italy in 2013—a country adrift, living off its glorious past, deeply pessimistic about its future. American audiences were more likely to accept its excesses—its long, sometimes dull stretches of aimlessness—more than they would have with an equally slow-paced American film.
This poses particular challenges for ambitious foreign films that do not follow this mold. The case of Italian director Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital, which was Italy’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar but was not nominated by the Academy, may be instructive in this regard. Based on an American novel of the same name by Stephen Amidon, the film has little about it that is quintessentially “Italian.” It takes Amidon’s story set in a wealthy Connecticut suburb as the American tech bubble burst in 2001, and transposes it to a wealthy suburb of Milan during the 2008 global financial crisis.
Human Capital is a taut, cleverly tailored piece of filmmaking. It begins near the end, when an SUV belonging to the son of a wealthy hedge fund manager (yes there are SUVs in Italy, albeit not many) swerves and hits a waiter returning home on bicycle after working at a Christmas party at a fancy private school. It then takes us back to the start of the sequence of events that precede and follow the tragedy, showing them unfold three different times, from the perspective of three different characters. This is a bold departure from the original novel and gives a certain freshness to the film. But the beating heart of Human Capital is that of a Hollywood thriller.
The first version is from the point of view of Dino Ossola, a real estate broker with a stagnant career and marriage, who decides he wants to get in on the highly-leveraged financial kill enjoyed by some local financiers in a booming stock market. He uses his daughter’s romance with Massimiliano Bernaschi, the son of the hedge fund manager whose SUV is later involved in the accident, to get into what he sees as a can’t miss investment. He borrows nearly a million dollars (700,000 euros) to invest in the Bernaschi Fund, using his family’s home as collateral—even as he discovers that his wife is pregnant. Somewhat predictably, the market tanks, Dino finds himself cut out of the weekly doubles tennis game at the Bernaschi house, while facing almost-certain ruin.
We next follow the same tale from the points of view of Bernaschi’s wife, Carla Bernaschi, played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, a bored but beautiful woman in search of some greater meaning than a life of luxury in the Milan suburbs; and of Dino’s daughter Serena. In Serena’s tale, we learn that, contrary to the impressions of the first two versions, she is no longer the girlfriend of Massimiliano Bernaschi. Instead, she has become involved with a boy named Luca, an artistically-gifted social outcast who is on probation for a crime he didn’t commit. On the culminating night of the story—the gala Christmas dinner that precedes the death of the cyclist—she has driven Massimiliano home in her own car from a party because he became too drunk to drive. It is Luca, Serena’s new boyfriend, who drives Massimiliano’s SUV, accidentally hitting the cyclist and driving away without stopping. Serena’s father, the now-financially desperate real estate broker, discovers the truth and decides to extort money from the Bernaschis, offering to pass on what he has learned about the accident to the police in exchange for 980,000 euros—his initial investment plus a healthy profit—the price of getting their son out of hot water.
So, in the end, almost everyone makes out surprisingly well. The Bernaschi Fund, which had “shorted” the market and suffered major initial losses, ends up making a killing. The real estate broker, Dino Ossola, has made the money he hoped for through his well-timed extortion and has a second child. Even Serena and Luca have a happy ending: in the final scene we see her visit him in prison and watch them smiling as the movie fades to black. We are told he will be released in less than a year. The only loser is the cyclist-waiter. The text that closes the film tells us that his family settled with an insurance company for 218,000 euros, the estimated value of his future earnings—the “human capital” of the film’s title.
The movie has the virtues and vices of many well-crafted but unexceptional American movies: it is tightly paced, with a series of twists and turns to its plot that keep you off-balance. There are a number of fine acting performances and the shifts in perspective from one telling to another are deftly handled. Yet while the director and scriptwriters have created a credible Italian setting—deftly picking the affluent area north of Milan as the Italian mirror of the American world of the novel—too often it feels like a skillful confection rather than a deeper statement about, say, the financialization of contemporary society. The characters are all stereotypical and one- or two-dimensional: the venal and stupid investor, the brutal and arrogant hedge-fund manager, his kind-hearted but ultimately complicit wife, their spoiled and entitled son.
With the rise of television, the declining number of movie theaters, and growing competition from big budget Hollywood blockbusters Italian films have had increasing difficulty living off the Italian market alone. Independent Italian producers, such as Dino De Laurentis and Carlo Ponti, who produced early Fellini movies like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, moved to Hollywood, and others, such as the Titanus film company, which produced several Visconti films, went belly up after the high cost of producing The Leopard. Italian cinema in recent decades has been hampered by limited availability of independent producers. ******
Italian filmmakers have either had to cobble together funding from international co-productions or money from Italian television. In the first case the director has to assemble an international cast of actors acting in different languages or in English. (Paolo Sorrentino‘s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, was an exception to this trend, having been produced by an interesting new Italian production company, Indigofilm, which has managed to work successfully by leveraging money from different sources.)
These films almost invariably have a watered-down, generic feel to them with the director operating out of his or her native culture. The films financed for Italian TV have the opposite problem: they tend to feel small and provincial, inexpensive, visually conservative, made for the small screen and a specifically national audience. Human Capital—though both an Italian-French coproduction with financing from Italian state television—avoids these two pitfalls, has an entirely Italian cast, and by dealing with the financial crisis, has a broader appeal.
But this ready intelligibility is also the film’s weakness: too often, one feels that it could have been set anywhere. However artfully it tells its story, the film falls back on fairly typical Hollywood devices. And as a commentary on our recent financial meltdown it seems neither revelatory (both the hedge funders and the sucker investors come out on top)—nor, in its particular resolution, plausible. The paradoxical lesson in this, may be that, for Italy and other countries with declining “national” cinemas, bringing off a well-made film that is at the same time sufficiently “foreign” by Oscar standards may be increasingly hard to achieve. At the end of Human Capital, when the Bernaschis are throwing a lavish family party to celebrate their triumph over the meltdown, Carla says to her financier husband: “You bet on the downfall of this country and you won.” To which he responds: “We won. You’re part of it, too, honey.” That rang true, with the sound of today’s Italy.