If the world truly seems like a smaller place these days, then we don’t have to look any farther than the films we watch for proof. Sourced from a novel written by Stephen Amidon and originally set in Connecticut, “Human Capital” (“Il capitale umano”), directed by Paolo Vizrí, uses what were generally consider as the underbelly of American virtues–greed, avarice, and the devaluation of human life–and transposes them half a world away in Italy.
On the surface, “Human Capital” is the story of two families and how their fates are tied together after an unfortunate accident. But Vizrí, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo) uses a deft touch to show people can put a price tag on most anything, and how the precarious nature of what we value–family, love, our place in the world–can be altered before we even know what has happened.
Film Slate Magazine had the chance to catch up with Vizrí on the eve of the American release of “Human Capital.” Completed in 2013, the film has been on an extended festival run.
Film Slate Magazine: Without giving away too much of the story, can you talk about the title of the film, “Human Capital?”
Paolo Vizrí: It’s the technical expression used by insurance adjusters to calculate the damages that have to be paid to the family members of an accident victim. There is a specific algorithm based on parameters such as life expectancy, earning prospects, and the quantity and quality of emotional ties. In the end a figure, a price, comes out: that is the value of our life. And it’s the title of the novel by Stephen Amidon that was the inspiration for the film.
FSM: I love the opening shot from above with the waiter cleaning up at a somewhat posh restaurant. He’s essentially cleaning up the mess of the rich, literally and metaphorically on a grand scale. Can you talk a little bit about that opening shot?
PV: The director’s job is to use the camera to narrate events, but also to suggest meaning, nuance, subtexts. I’m pleased that they didn’t escape you here. That opening shot also says: the party’s over, we’ve consumed everything, we’ve eaten everything, all that’s left is the trash to take out.
FSM: There is–or used to be–a perception of American greed throughout the world and with globalization that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Is this why you chose to place the setting in Italy as opposed to its original American setting?
PV: The world has gotten smaller. We all have the same smartphones in our pockets, we’re all living in the same landscape, we’re all dreaming the same dream and suffering the same distress. Of course each person has his or her own characteristics, as an individual but also as a social, political, and aesthetic being. We took the plot from a novel set in Connecticut and breathed into it the ailing soul of northern Italy.
FSM: Every character in this film seems to have a certain moral flexibility, but without a main character as the moral compass of the film. Roberta seems to be the only moral center, but she’s a minor character and often in the dark about what’s going on. Do you feel this is reflective of society as a whole? How much thought did you put into this when working on the screenplay?
PV: You’re right, there are no good guys in the film. Even the victims, the poor kids oppressed by their parents, are not innocent. To tell you the truth even Roberta, who seems like the only judicious and caring adult in the film, is a little foolish not to realize the kind of trouble her partner has gotten himself into. On the other hand, she’s preoccupied by what is happening to her, a late and unexpected pregnancy. In other words, we thought it would be interesting to talk about controversial people caught between the tragic and the ridiculous. Characters that make us suffer. But the ones who are most caught up in the balancing act between the human and the inhuman are the two fathers of the film: Dino Ossola, Serena’s father, the pathetic social climber who hopes to find a way to win the bet that will solve their problems. And Giovanni Bernaschi, the Junk Bond King, cynical, worshipped, and triumphant, who at a certain point starts looking like a man of the utmost integrity, unwilling to compromise to help his son, but at the same time maybe he doesn’t help him because he deeply detests him, because he’s not the “winner” he had hoped his son would be.
FSM: Let’s get into production for a little bit. Can you talk about what it was like getting this film off the ground? Were there any struggles getting this film funded and distributed?
PV: It wasn’t very easy because in Italy we’re going through a moment that isn’t exactly rosy. Films like mine – with artistic, expressive, and even political ambitions, films in other words that are not light carefree comedies – have a budget-building process that requires partners from other countries. I don’t deal with these things but I know that I had to wait a little while before starting to shoot. Then luckily things went very well, the film was a hit at the domestic box office, and it was sold all over the world.
FSM: Along with yourself, two other people are credited as screenwriters for “Human Capital.” How did the writing process work and how true did you stay to the source material?
PV: I like writing in company, and it’s something that happens a lot in Italian cinema. Take a look at the credits of a classic like “The Bicycle Thief” or, more recently, “Gomorrah.” Francesco Bruni is an old high school friend, and he has been my co-writer on many of my films. Most of all he’s a good friend, and together we have a lot more fun. The book was very important as a source of inspiration, but we made very free use of it, changing not just the setting but also the structure, adopting the outline of separate chapters that relate the same events from different points of view.
FSM: Finally, here at Film Slate we like to champion artists struggling to sustain a living as a filmmaker. Can you give any advice for novice filmmakers from a creative and business view?
PV: Advice for novice filmmakers? To care deeply about something, to be interested in what came before cinema. A little experience is all it takes to learn to shoot a film in technical terms. The important thing is what happens before you pick up a camera: your thinking, compassion, your interest in people and their stories.