Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital gives the tired trope of cutting between overlapping stories a welcome shot of adrenaline, using it not just to compare and contrast tangentially related stories, but to show how people caught up in their private dramas can overlook or misinterpret the people around them—especially those who have less power, whether because of their gender, their class, their age, or some combination of the three.
The film’s prologue reveals a worker cleaning up a banquet hall and who leaves early to bike home on a cold winter night before being hit by an SUV. The car keeps going, leaving the man badly hurt and unconscious on the side of the road. Three chapters follow, each telling different parts of the story of the accident’s cause and aftermath from the viewpoint of a different character. Each chapter layers on new information that deepens—and sometimes upends—our understanding of the main characters. One segment often brings words or actions that played out in the background of another to the foreground, revealing that they meant something very different than we had first assumed. Meanwhile, the man on the bicycle, the most powerless of them all, remains in the background of all three stories.
The first chapter follows Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), an obnoxious social climber desperate to get in with his daughter’s rich boyfriend’s father, Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni). It’s clear to everyone but Dino that the two will never be friends, but Dino pursues him avidly, a smelly, matted-haired mutt trotting after a sleek and supercilious Weimeraner. Dino’s teenage daughter, Serena (Matilde Gioli), is often literally in the background of his shots, jumping into a pool at Giovanni’s palatial house with his son, Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), while Dino worms his way into a tennis game with Giovanni or running up to her room while he sits fretting downstairs.
In chapter two, we get to know Celia (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), Massimiliano’s mother and Giovanni’s wife. A sweet, sad beauty in early middle age, she has almost no sense of self left after years of working at nothing but pleasing her imperial husband. When she calls off a brief affair with her former theater professor, he blasts her with both barrels, saying she’s not a serious person, but “an amateur” who took the easy way out when she married a rich man—and she agrees. Bruni-Tedeschi plays Celia as immaculately pulled-together on the surface, but psychologically tenuous, so insecure and eager to be liked that she sometimes trembles or stammers a bit when she speaks. The two alpha dogs in her house, Giovanni and Massimiliano, don’t bother to talk to her much, but she pays close attention to them. We learn a lot more in her segment than we did in Dino’s about Massimiliano and Serena, the young people who are at the center of this story, but even she sees very little of who they are or what’s going on between them.
Chapter three is reserved for Serena, and it’s a revelation. A beautiful teenage girl, she’s relegated to a minor supporting role as Massimliano’s supportive girlfriend in the other two stories, but she emerges here as a strong-willed, sensitive, and sensible young woman who’s dealing with a more serious problem, and acting far more responsibly, than either of the two adults. Even her love story feels as solid and mature as Celia’s dalliance was impetuous and childish. What’s more, Serena turns out to be the engine behind most of the action, setting wheels in motion with her constant efforts to help and protect other people. Serena’s chapter deftly weaves together the revelation of who drove the SUV and why she’s defending him with the unfolding of her love story, wrapping up this cleverly told mystery and finding new ways to illustrate its organic and unpreachy moral: Never write anyone off.