***ATTENTION! SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!***
Human capital is defined as an individual’s economic value based on the sum of his or her skills, professional competences, knowledge, personality, and experience (Investopedia, Britannica.com). It is, in other words, the price tag one might put on a human life.
Paolo Virzì’s 2014 film, Il capitale umano, based on the 2005 book by the same name – Human Capital, by Stephen Amidon – is a four-chapter exercise in asking just this: how much is a human life worth? Who gets to decide? And why?
As of its very first frame, the film places viewers in a world of (white) privilege, to varying degrees of entitlement. Dino Ossola is an upper middle-class real estate agent, a divorcé in his middle age remarried (for all intents and purposes) with twins on the way. His sixteen year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Serena, is casually involved with Massimiliano, the son of the extremely wealthy Bernaschi family, who own property throughout the province of Brianza (though location is of no consequence to the plot or universal themes of the film) and operate a notorious hedge fund. Serena and Massimiliano attend a prestigious co-ed private collegiate institute struggling to climb out of its “White Boys Club” pigeon-hole. Dino’s partner, Roberta, is a psychologist, who consults with troubled youth at the local public psychiatric hospital. Massimiliano’s mother, Carla, like most women of her social caste, spends her days shopping for fine things, throwing parties in her husband’s name, or contributing in whatever way she can to philanthropic enterprises with a culturally enriching end.
A car accident on the night of a charity benefit hosted by Serena and Massimiliano’s school, complicated by Dino Ossola’s recent entry into Giovanni Bernaschi’s hedge fund, irrevocably intertwines the Ossola and Bernaschi clans, with one man’s life and another man’s future hanging in the balance. When the families’ riches and reputations are on the line, opportunism becomes their only viable method of unblemished survival.
The film, visually brilliant, does some things quite well. It is carefully paced and clearly, if a little obviously, achieves what I think is its central mission: the juxtaposition of opulence and squalor, privilege and disenfranchisement, ruthless scheming and moral integrity. It also effectively, if perhaps unintentionally, confirms what we know to be true about white privilege: that any amount of it is protection against the harsher fates reserved for those without it. Of the four chapters, each of the first three told from a different character’s point of view, the first and second, Dino’s and Carla’s versions of the film’s events, are Virzì’s most successful. They represent opposite sides of a middle-aged crisis catalyzed by a lingering lack of professional fulfilment. Fabrizio Bentivoglio delivers a layered and nuanced interpretation of the seemingly emotionally-detached, flippant, and self-interested Dino, an underdog in denial about the direction of his life. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s interpretation of Carla is a heartbreaking show of the anxiety and depression that come with a talent and intelligence gone to waste in the pursuit of material comfort, even to the detriment of personal happiness. Both actors deliver stunning performances that by themselves are enough to justify the time invested in watching them.
The film fails, however, to enter into the world of the man whose human capital is in question: the victim of the car accident on the evening of the benefit. Viewers know nothing about him other than his occupation (waiter), civil status (married, with children) and primary means of transportation (bicycle). We see him in hospital, struggling to survive severe wounds to his head. We see his wife in tears at the doctor’s skepticism about her husband’s recovery. We see his bicycle left on the side of the road. But not much else. Perhaps Virzì’s intention is to relegate this character to the cold anonymity with which his human capital – or price tag – is evaluated by insurance brokers and financial experts. Perhaps he means to reinforce the economic nature of this final transaction by again identifying the strong and advantaged members of society as the only useful voices to hear. But from a human point of view, I think a true examination of the accident victim’s personal and professional life, an opportunity for viewers to evaluate for themselves his pricelessness to his family and community, might have better driven home the film’s central message: who is anyone to determine the worth of another human life? And why do only the wealthy (or aspiring-wealthy) get to decide?
The film’s last two chapters, Serena’s version of the events followed by a general wrap-up, are a little less carefully crafted, a little less attentive to plausible or implausible details, a little less engulfed in the heavy moral issues they superficially present that are often the singular subjects of other whole works of art — psychological trauma, attempted suicide, physical and mental abuse, teenage anxiety. This lack of a sense of completion might speak to Virzì’s conscious or unconscious choice to pay greater attention to his own station in life – a middle-aged man of considerable material success – and the questions it raises for him personally and ethically. It might be an intentional decline into chaos as the world around the film’s protagonists spins out of control. It might be the result of the last edit before production, and the absence of the scenes left on the cutting room floor. We may never know. Overall, however, Il capitale umano remains a timely and provocative display of the 21st century’s obsession with materialism, status, and financial success.