The waiter bicycling home from a banquet, hit by a bratty rich kid’s SUV late in the slushy December night near Milan, isn’t identified until the final minutes of this fine, damning drama. And his name is accompanied by a payout in euros (an insurance settlement), because financial value and human worth are the twinned subjects of Paolo Virzi’s film (adapted from American writer Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel, kicked forward to reflect the recent global financial crisis). Two families are affected by the hit-and-run incident: the rich Bernaschi clan, led by slick, harried hedge-fund manager Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni); and the middle-class Ossolas, whose wheedling, ambitious patriarch Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is determined to hustle his way to higher station. If that means cutting corners, he’ll gladly lie to his banker for a loan; and Giovanni’s firm is happy to accept his high-risk investment. Giovanni and Dino become acquainted only because their teenagers are dating (though that relationship isn’t what it seems). What they have in common—with the rest of Italy, Virzi implies—is that everyone is trying to game the system.
The financial preamble, road accident, and aftermath are seen from three separate perspectives over six months. Dino’s avuncular view is self-serving: His second wife Roberta (Valeria Golino—remember her from Rain Man?) is pregnant; and he wants/resents la dolce vita the Bernaschis represent. Inside their mansion, however, we see the gilded discontent of Giovanni’s wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), whose loutish son is involved with Dino’s daughter Serena (Matilde Giol). The latter is, along with stepmother Roberta, one of the few characters here not motivated by money, and she brings to the picture a keen moral calculation the adults lack. As we—and the police—gradually gather what happened that fateful night, Serena must decide which family to destroy by telling the truth. Giovanni’s hedge fund is imploding; her father could lose their own home; and she’s discovering a new kind of love far from the Bernaschi estate.
How Virzi resolves these story strands isn’t tightly knotted; this is the kind of flick where a teenager leaves her laptop open for Daddy to read her e-mail while she sobs in the shower. The elegant Bernaschi and earthy Ossola families often feel like they’re in two different movies (by Antonioni and Rossellini, respectively), though that’s partly Virzi’s point: Italy is a nation still divided between those above the law and those trying, with little success, to break the law. When Carla finally tells her husband, “You bet on the downfall of this country, and you won,” we’re not sure if it’s a rebuke or a vindication. But he corrects her: “We won.” They still have their fortune, and only the little people go to jail. Or die in a ditch.
HUMAN CAPITAL Opens Fri., Feb. 6 at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Film Center. Not rated. 110 minutes.