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Melodrama Carries The Message In 'Human Capital'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 3, 2015 4:30PM

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Human Capital' (Photo: Loris T. Zambelli/Film Movement).

The Gene Siskel Film Center's capsule summary of Human Capital describes the movie as a "trenchant drama" and a "critique of the prerogatives of class and wealth." Both statements are absolutely true, but neither hints at how damn entertaining this much-honored Italian drama is.

We've grown accustomed to equating entertainment with sheer escapism, usually within the confines of fantasy spectacles or high-octane action fare. I'm all for both those kinds of films when done well, but social issue dramas and melodramas can be entertaining too. Human Capital is both: a social issue drama tackling the destructive influence of a market-driven world, and a juicy melodrama filled with dark secrets, sex, betrayals, and violence. Serious and soap opera sit next to each other quite comfortably in this sleek and engaging package.

More than one reviewer has compared Human Capital to Crash, Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning 2005 drama about race and class in contemporary society. Both are multi-character dramas with interconnecting plot threads that make a moral statement. But where Crash did kind of feel like a civics lesson with a few too many convenient plot turns to hammer home its points, Human Capital plays out more intriguingly and, yes, entertainingly. With key events shown from different characters' points of view, it's almost closer to a less pulpy Pulp Fiction than Crash, even though it's worlds away from Tarantino's violent genre movie homage in other regards.

The plot weaves around a middle-class real estate agent's desire to join the inner circle of a wealthy neighbor and a hit-and-run accident which functions as the film's key mystery. Also in the mix are the rich man's unhappy and creatively stifled wife, a drama teacher attracted to her, the real estate agent's daughter (dating the rich man's son, but drawn to a secretive working class waiter) and others on different ends of the income gap.

As the movie's title suggests, relationships come a distant second to the pursuit of affluence or the desperate clinging to it among those who already have it. The chaotic economic and social aftermath of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's reign surely sets the tone for Human Capital, but the movie is based on an American novel (by Stephen Amidon) and in a global economy the universal truths of this story pretty much apply to everyone.

There is that grim, ripped-from-The Wall Street Journal center to the movie, but it's put forth in bright, colorful cinematography; Paolo Virzì's crisp and energetic direction; and excellent performances. For most American viewers, Valeria Golino (Hot Shots, Rain Man) is probably the most recognizable cast member, but the most magnetic acting comes from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (sister of model/singer and former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy), who brings a deep vulnerability to her role as the rich man's well-intentioned but hopelessly out-of-touch wife.

Human Capital cleaned up at Italy's version of the Oscars, the David di Donatello Awards, winning Best Film, Screenplay and Actress (for Bruni Tedeschi) among others. So it's unavoidably a "prestige film," I suppose. OK, I'll live with that, as long as we can also call it an unabashed crowd-pleaser for adults.

Human Capital. Directed by Paolo Virzì. Written by Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo; based on the novel by Stephen Amidon. Starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, and Valeria Golino. 110 mins. In Italian with English subtitles. Not rated by the MPAA.

Opens today, April 3, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.