A slick thriller, a dark comedy, a subversive political flick–Italian director Paolo Virzi made all of these in Human Capital. A hit-and-run accident serves as the trigger point in this tragicomic tale of wealth and ambition that unites the family of an unscrupulous hedge fund manager with that of a middle-class family thirsting for his type of wealth. Virzi divides the film into four sections, each depicting a different character’s point of view. •Availability: Opens January 14, New York City, Film Forum; January 16, L.A.; followed by national rollout; available streaming or on DVD by Film Movement. •Thanks to the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview. •Thanks to Julia Pacetti, JMP Verdant, for the images.•
DT: I love the way you tell your story through camera movement. In the opening shot, you start overhead, then come down and dolly into the guy while he’s approaching the camera—
PV: Thank you for appreciating this.
DT: Do you have general principles of storytelling through camera movement?
PV: In the scene that you describe, we needed to suggest something more subtle, like there was a party, the party’s over, and this is not only a concrete description of the moment but also a metaphor. The party we’re talking about is a general system of value, of wealth. Then we describe the poor victim, who we will see only in the prologue, only in this very short chapter, which is the main title sequence. He will disappear until we know that he is dead. So it’s our poor Christ, the sacrificial lamb of the struggle of the story. It was very, very interesting for me to visualize this movie. For the first time in my career as a director, I was charmed to tell a kind of noir, a thriller, but I wanted to mix the thriller tone with la comedie humaine, the social drama, the dark humor tuned under this story. A thriller where there is no real bad guy with the good guy chasing after him but a story where nobody is—
DT: Where everyone is complicit.
PV: Exactly. Everybody is guilty. Probably the innocent guy is the one who’s guilty of the accident, so it was charming for me to find a way to tell this mystery, which is the unhappiness of the rich. I took inspiration from an American novel situated in Connecticut, then I tried to translate this to Northern Italy. I had to reinvent it, because the place of the accident doesn’t exist on our map. It doesn’t exist in reality.
DT: So you made up the road sign that signified the place.
PV: Of course. We invented this place. A kind of metaphor.
DT: What kind of adjustments did you have to make to translate an American novel into an Italian story?
PV: The main character in the novel is a self-made man, a first-generation rich guy, but he’s typically American. Our social elevator is not as fast as yours; in our country, to be bourgeois but with principles is not typical of first-generation wealth, so we imagined him as a kind of aristocrat wth a big family behind him. Basically, though, the main change was the structure of the story. The book was huge, with enough material for a twelve-episode HBO series. We had to shorten it, to make some very difficult choices about what to cut, because there was a lot of beautiful material. And we had to especially reinvent the way of telling. We took suggestions from Kurosawa, Pulp Fiction, from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. It was the same structure of telling the story with different points of view, where we try to combine these different points of view.
There’s also a hidden sense in this story that things are not what they look like at first glance, especially in the conflict between generations—how the elders look at the youngest; that they are completely misunderstood and now the young generation looks at their parents. So this way of telling the story was the main change—the novel doesn’t begin with the end. It’s more linear.
DT: You’ve gone from making pretty conventional comedies to making other kinds of movies, like Every Blessed Day, that include comic moments within a broader scenario. In Human Capital, I loved the dichotomy between the wife’s board meeting and her husband’s board meeting, and then of course there’s the sex scene. Do you sculpt comedic moments the same way you create an overall comedy?
PV: I try to always combine dark elements with comedy. I used to pick up painful plots; La Prima is the story of a model who dies from cancer, but I transformed it into a funny movie. As a viewer and as a reader, I like when the two are combined. For example, I’m a big fan of Charles Dickens, because he tells very tragic stories but with a funny touch. In Human Capital there’s less comedy than usual for me, but I want you to know that when we were shooting the film, we laughed a lot behind the scenes. I was in front of the monitor trying to search the sarcastic tone in every single moment of the movie. We were trying to tell the tragedy of a country where everything is a disaster but with a dark humoristic touch, which I tried to steal from the Yiddish tradition.
PV: From Jewish writers. To tell a story is always to imagine, to usurp, also to steal. And I think I stole something from the Coen brothers and Philip Roth, for example, to say somebody very familiar for you.
DT: I thought you were going to say Isaac Bashevis Singer. So as the director of the Turin Film Festival, how do you see worldwide cinema? Where are things happening?
PV: There’s a big change, especially in the cinema of reality. The documentary is becoming the new narration of the moment. It’s one of the mainstream forms coming out that interests me very much. I also feel that every country right now is more specific in telling its story in the use of languages of the actors, of local lands. Italy was a country where, without any problems, we put Burt Lancaster in Sicily as a prince. Now it’s absolutely impossible to do this.
DT: You also dubbed everything.
PV: It was another season. Now there’s a moment of specificity, ethnicity, so there’s this strength of reality. But at the same time it’s a moment—and Human Capital can be an example of this—to turn the page on a system of values, of the pursuit of wealth. It’s the moment of the end of capitalism, and we can see it in different stories. For example, the Tribeca Film Festival had a movie from Venezuela called Bad Hair, which we also had in our competition.
DT: It’s a wonderful film.
PV: I think it’s beautiful. It won a couple of awards in Turino, best actress and best screenplay. And it’s strong and sweet and tender. It tells a story from the third world, but like it was in a huge town like New York. It could also be in the Bronx, for example. There are themes that chase after themselves. And there is another new generation of performers, of actors and actresses who come from reality, that we can use. So there’s a new cinema that’s not based on the big star, which is very strong around the world. What else? There’s no aesthetic like a new wave, where you can precisely identify a nouvelle vague of this moment. There are many aesthetics, many stories, many waves. But with something in common: reality. The desire to turn the page of this historical moment; the strength of a new director who comes from documentary. If you take this and mix it up, you’ve got the new season of contemporary cinema.
DT: I saw Human Capital as a political film.
PV: Yes, it is.
DT: But it’s also very slick, and I’m wondering if the political message gets lost when the film is so slick.
PV: There was a moment when everybody wanted to be rich and we thought we would have a kind of paradise on earth. It’s not possible anymore. Pope Francis transmits this with a simple message. I make movies. I have to tell stories. I have to present intriguing and fascinating questions and controversy with shades, and nuance. I don’t like to tell a story with good guys and bad guys; every single character has a bad face and a human one. They are pathetic, they are monsters, they are human beings, they make mistakes. I’m happy to be a filmmaker and do this silly job of telling stories to an audience, but I’m very happy if somebody in the audience is smarter and can pick up something more.
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