‘Human Capital’ is imperfect, but worth a rental

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“Human Capital” is one of many interesting foreign films to have made a brief stop in Buffalo so far this year. As my Buffalo News review explains, this is not a great movie, but certainly one worth watching. Note an error with the review, however. I submitted a review with a 2.5 star grade, but it is listed here as 3.5. Oh well.

Two families and a bicyclist meet with combustible results in “Human Capital,” a sharp, ambitiously staged drama about life in modern, post-Berlusconi Italy. “Everything is collapsing,” says one character after financial forecasts prove disastrously incorrect. That collapse, director Paolo Virzi demonstrates, is not just monetary, but personal, emotional and even physical.

Like recent Italian cinema successes “The Great Beauty” and “Reality,” Virzi’s film is focused on the severe clash between the haves, the have-nots, and those stuck in the middle, aching to get ahead.

Dino Ossola is in the latter category, a likable if slightly buffoonish sort whose daughter Serena is dating the son of a wealthy hedge fund kingpin. Dino (played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio who looks like a cross between Eric Roberts and Bob Seger) sees an opportunity to get in with Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni). Giovanni can tell: “You want to buy into our fund,” he says with the air of a man who is used to such requests.

It is quickly clear that Dino is in over his head, but bigger problems develop. When a waiter on his bicycle is struck by a passing SUV on the night before Christmas Eve, Dino’s daughter and Giovanni’s son are suspects.

This news arrives at a particularly bad time for Carla Bernaschi (the wondrous, wounded Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a seemingly bored wife and mother attempting to save a small theater until her husband announces that he must sell it.

“Human Capital” buzzes along nicely for the first hour, but makes a crucial error in turning its focus to Serena. It is not the fault of actress Matilde Gioli that Serena is so dull – we can blame director and co-writer Virzi – but no matter who is responsible, the Serena section causes the film to screech to a halt.

Placement also is an issue. The stories of Dino and Carla are so involving that perhaps whoever followed would seem rote by comparison. But Serena’s tale, and the love story at its center, seems particularly weak. Also rather pedestrian is the final explanation of who is responsible for causing the accident.

Yet for the most part, “Human Capital” is compelling cinema. And while Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards failed to secure a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it is a smarter, more ambitious production than most adult fare being burped out in Hollywood.

Virzi is known for his Italian comedies, but “Human Capital” is a dark, somber piece. Except for a few issues (sorry, Serena), he has created a unique, timely drama. And “50 Shades of Grey” devotees should note that Virzi also stages one of the more erotic love scenes in recent memory.

The cast is uniformly strong, but it is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who truly impresses. Her Carla is a vulnerable woman stuck in a powerless position, and every moment she is on screen is riveting.

It is hard to quibble with the decision to divide “Human Capital” into character-focused chapters, but the viewer cannot help but wonder if a film centered on Carla alone might have proven even more successful.

With a bit more focus, “Capital” could have gone down as another modern Italian cinema great. Even so, it’s close, and that is an impressive feat.