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TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Human Capital’ Director Explores ‘Wealth Without Happiness’

”It was a way for us to make a film about modern Italy, which has now changed,“ director Paolo Virzi says of his film

How much is a human life worth? That’s the question writer-director Paolo Virzi was asking in his latest film “Human Capital,” or “Il capitale umano” in Italian.

“This wealth without happiness was something familiar to us,” Virzi told moderator Steve Pond at TheWrap‘s Awards Season Screening Series presentation of the film at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “It was a way for us to make a film about modern Italy, which has now changed.”

The noir is Italy’s entry into the Oscar race for the foreign-language feature category. The story begins on a cold winter night when a cyclist is hit by an SUV. The driver of the vehicle abandons the cyclist in the snow. The subsequent investigation connects two families, one wealthy and the other middle-class, as the film explores human and inhuman ambitions, generational conflicts and social class in Northern Italy.

While most may think of Fellini and Rossellini when they consider Italy’s national cinema, Virzi assured the audience that filmmaking in the country is much different now.

“We are a modern and desperate country,” he said.

Virzi made his directorial debut in 1994, with “La Bella Vita” and is known for comedies like “The First Beautiful Thing”; the latter was the Italian Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for the 83rd Academy Awards, but ultimately didn’t make the final shortlist.

Virzi fell in love with the dark story of “Human Capital” after reading the novel by Stephen Amidon. He decided to base the film’s structure on “chapters.” Each chapter centers on a different character as the story returns to the night of the accident.

“The truth is not exactly what it looks like at first sight,” said Virzi, noting that he was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.”

The filmmaker had to adapt what was an American book to fit Italian culture.

“The book was a surprising source of inspiration for us to make an Italian murder mystery,” said Virzi.  “[The protagonist] was a new money guy, he was an American self-made man. In Italy we don’t have that economic social ladder. Money goes to money.” So instead Virzi placed part of the story in the upper class with inherited wealth.

“It’s something that is more Italian than I was thinking at first,” said Virzi. “I’m not able to avoid my destiny of being an Italian filmmaker.”

Still the story managed to transcend cultures and was eventually sold in over 40 countries.

“In the age of the global economy there is something that reflects the behavior of the characters, familiar conflicts and relationships,” said Virzi.

Despite a bit of political outcry for the film due to its criticism of Italian culture, the film was very popular in the country and Virzi addressed the expectations of bringing an Oscar back home.

“In Italy they are expecting it,” Virzi joked. “They don’t want me to come back without it. I’m trying to explain that it’s not that easy. … I probably have to prepare a big plan to go to Mexico.”