A dance of death, part 1

Paolo Virzì is in New York as Human Capital becomes Italy's Oscar hope.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Human Capital (Il capitale umano) director Paolo Virzì with Anne-Katrin Titze
Human Capital (Il capitale umano) director Paolo Virzì with Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Dov Mamann

During the Tribeca Film Festival, I spoke with Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano) director Paolo Virzì and two of his stars, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Valeria Golino. Since then his film, which also stars Fabrizio Bentivoglio and Fabrizio Gifuni, has been selected as Italy's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, following in the footsteps of Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar win for The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).

Valeria Golino as Roberta with Fabrizio Bentivoglio as Dino: "They are all fragile and at the same time they are funny."
Valeria Golino as Roberta with Fabrizio Bentivoglio as Dino: "They are all fragile and at the same time they are funny."

This time we discussed what it feels like for him to represent his country and go up against filmmakers such as Dominik Graf, Pawel Pawlikowski, Bertrand Bonello, Ruben Östlund, Damián Szifron, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. The Como connection to George Clooney, Giorgio Armani and the Versace family plays a role in forging cultural awareness. Transforming Stephen Amidon's Connecticut into a small fictional town near Milan and working with actors who are also directors came up on a frosty December morning, across from Bryant Park in New York.

Human Capital is a tale of people trapped in the wheels of money, prestige and unfulfilled longings, disguised as a thriller. Some create the wheels, some spin them and others run in them.

On an evening right before Christmas in Northern Italy, a waiter at a school function is run over on his bicycle riding home in the snow. This hit and run tragedy links a number of people from different social backgrounds as Virzì's delicate and bewildering tale jumps back and forth from a summer past to the fateful winter night.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Carla: "The sensual dance of the rich and privileged and bored wife…"
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Carla: "The sensual dance of the rich and privileged and bored wife…"

Two families are tied together by an accident and their children. Serena (Matilde Gioli) and Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli) have very little in common outside of school, and their relationship crumbles. Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Massimiliano's mother, is a woman who has great financial privileges and no emotional stability. Her life of manicures, massages and antiques shopping makes her feel increasingly worthless. This is reinforced by her husband, Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), who communicates nothing of importance to her.

Three perspectives, given one chapter each, illuminate disasters far greater and perhaps much smaller than the accident at hand and tell us about the nature of human capital. How much is a person worth?

Anne-Katrin Titze: I couldn't make it to the [Priscilla Rattazzi and Mario Calvo-Platero] party last night for Human Capital. How was the reaction?

Paolo Virzì: It was exciting because it was a very warm reception. All over the United States. And in Australia - that was a place where I received a lot of very touching reviews. I like the Anglo-Saxon audience's reaction.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Carla and Fabrizio Gifuni as Giovanni: "Decidedly a feeling of decline, of the end of a world."
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Carla and Fabrizio Gifuni as Giovanni: "Decidedly a feeling of decline, of the end of a world."

AKT: Do you think it has something to do with the fact that the novel the film is based on was set in Connecticut?

The film takes place in a fictional town near Milan and was shot in Como and surroundings.

PV: Maybe. Maybe it is something in the story which is a thriller but at the same time suggests something that touches on the discomfort of society.

AKT: Your film won a lot of prizes at many different festivals all over the world. There is something quite universal about it.

PV: At the same time, I think it's a very Italian movie. The work of the performers who are able to combine a humorous touch with the drama. They are all fragile and at the same time they are funny. I think this is an Italian way of storytelling. The multiple points of the structure of the thriller can create curiosity. It can be intense but also entertaining.

AKT: In April, you asked me how I would pitch your film.

PV: I remember very well. You were very helpful to me because you said basically what I now understand very well. Thriller, social commentary, portrait of humanity in the age of big financial issues. And a funny, pathetic comedy of people, of human beings full of mistakes.

Roberta with Dino: "The multiple points of the structure of the thriller can create curiosity."
Roberta with Dino: "The multiple points of the structure of the thriller can create curiosity."

AKT: What had the most lasting effect on me is the mood of your film, the sense of a Dance of Death.

PV: Yeah, probably.

AKT: A Dance of Death of capitalism with glimmer and sparkly beauty in the process of dying.

PV: Decidedly a feeling of decline, of the end of a world. The three young people are under the domination of their parents and of society. The world of the adults is ending. They themselves are not totally innocent, yet they have something to desire. Probably they are the new beginning. It is the end of a world. Dance of Death, you said? I like it.

AKT: I didn't really think that much about the comparison but it really fits. The Danse Macabre, the medieval personified death who connects all the different social strata could be seen as related to the man on the bicycle. Death cycles among them on a wintry night.

PV: That's fascinating. I love the way you react. The sensual dance of the rich and privileged and bored wife [Valeria Bruni Tedeschi] confronts the world of Carmelo Bene. That moment is very absurd, especially for us Italians.

AKT: What film is she watching with the professor [Russomanno]?

Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano): "The work of the performers who are able to combine a humorous touch with the drama."
Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano): "The work of the performers who are able to combine a humorous touch with the drama."

PV: They are watching Nostra Signora Dei Turchi [Our Lady of the Turks] by Carmelo Bene, who was a sort of icon of '68 cinema, a rebel. And now it becomes a toy for an annoyed upper class wife. In that scene, Valeria is fantastic how she is ridiculous and sexy at the same time.

AKT: She is fantastic and on my top list of performances for the year.

PV: She is shortlisted as one of the best five European actresses for next Saturday in Riga [27th European Film Awards on December 13].

AKT: Both Valerias are also movie directors. I loved [Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's] A Castle In Italy and [Valeria Golino's] Honey. I spoke with Valeria and Jasmine [Trinca] on Honey earlier this year.

PV: Honey is beautiful. Very mature. You know that there are two more film directors in my cast? Not only the two Valerias but also Fabrizio Bentivoglio, who made two very good movies, and Luigi Lo Cascio [Donato, the professor] who presented his own movie.

AKT: You are clearly not intimidated. Some directors like actors who don't know what they're doing. You are the opposite.

Matilde Gioli as Serena with Giovanni Anzaldo as Luca: "They themselves are not totally innocent, yet they have something to desire."
Matilde Gioli as Serena with Giovanni Anzaldo as Luca: "They themselves are not totally innocent, yet they have something to desire."

PV: It was a good collaboration. They were very important for this movie.

AKT: When I spoke to the two Valerias they said that one item respectively was central for them in understanding their character. For one, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, it was the platform shoes. Most women watching will have a physical reaction to these dangerous horrible shoes. They are impossible to walk in.

PV [laughs]: Very important, that kind of shoe for her! I remember very well, she said to me, they are too "vulgari", like tacky.

AKT: Vulgar, yes, like stripper shoes.

PV: When she tried to walk in those, she was enthusiastic. She said "yeah!"

AKT: Valeria Golino said that her equivalent was the belly for her character's pregnancy. The physicalness of it.

PV: They are very good friends in real life, you know, kind of sisters. When Valeria Bruni Tedeschi comes to Rome from Paris, where she lives, she doesn't go to a hotel. She sleeps in the same bed as the other Valeria. They push away Riccardo Scamarcio who is Valeria Golino's fiance. Sometimes they are a little bit jealous, one of the other. For instance, Golino is absolutely jealous of the role that Bruni Tedeschi played in Human Capital.

Carla with professor Russomanno (Luigi Lo Cascio): "They are watching Nostra Signora dei Turchi."
Carla with professor Russomanno (Luigi Lo Cascio): "They are watching Nostra Signora dei Turchi."

AKT: During all the celebrations and parties going on around your film, were there moments when you felt as though you were in your film?

PV: Of course. You mean seeing myself celebrated?

AKT: And surrounded by people who might very well fit into the film itself?

PV: I am in the moment of the promotion of a movie and I have to confess, it's the most awkward moment in the process of my work. Of course, I prefer to write, to shoot and to edit. This part for me is funny and useful because I'm trying to catch feedback. I can't wait to shoot another one.

In part 2, Slavoj Zizek's reading of Kierkegaard, an old theatre in the Como backyard of George Clooney, Giorgio Armani and the Versace family, Sebastião Salgado's Genesis exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York, Oscar submissions for Best Foreign Language Film and what's coming up next with Francesca Archibugi, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Micaela Ramazzotti.

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