Italian job: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi excels (Loris T Zambelli)
Sunday Times. 14 September 2014.
An American novel is now an award-winning Italian film.
What did I do right, asks its author Stephen Amidon.
Although I had many ambitions for my novel Human Capital when it was published in 2004, seeing it adapted into a hit Italian movie was definitely not among them. Yet that is exactly what has happened. Released in January, Paolo Virzi’s Il Capitale Umano was not only a box-office success, it defeated Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty for best picture at Italy’s “Oscars”, the David di Donatello awards.
I am still astonished that the film was made at all. At first glance, my fifth novel seems a most unlikely candidate for relocation to Italy. It’s set in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in 2001 and tells the story of a bumbling, debt-ridden estate agent whose life becomes tragically enmeshed with a hedge-fund manager’s after their teenage children are involved in a car accident. My intention was to write a work of social realism that captured the manners, aspirations and anxieties of the American upper middle class in the heady days just before the Twin Towers fell. Italy’s only role in the book was to provide delicacies served at dinner parties, as well as stylish films shown at the art-house cinema owned by the novel’s rich heroine.
So my surprise was considerable when, in the summer of 2011, I received word that Virzi was interested in adapting my book. (Our improbable relationship almost did not get off the ground: my 13-year-old daughter took down the number of Virzi’s US representative incorrectly, leading me to repeatedly phone a Brooklyn pizza parlour.) I agreed to let him have a go, though my scepticism remained deep. I’d had books unsuccessfully optioned before, by film-makers who spoke the same language as me.
Although Virzi initially contemplated filming in America, he soon decided to set the story in Italy. This meant I would play no role in the production. For the next two years, I existed in a state of anxious anticipation as news arrived from overseas.
An impressive script materialised, by Virzi and the veteran Italian screenwriters Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo. There were photos of the cast, who were just like I’d imagined my characters, only a lot better-looking. Despite this accumulating evidence, it remained difficult for me to believe my story would translate successfully to such a different culture.
My most immediate concern was my characters. They were all so deeply, irrevocably American. How could they ever become Italian? The hard-driving hedge-fund manager Quint Manning, raised in poverty on a New England Christmas-tree farm, and his brittle, Manhattan-born wife, Carrie, might drape themselves in Armani and Prada, but their aspirations and flaws remained thoroughly American. And could there be an Italian equivalent of the shambolic estate agent Drew Hagel, with his ill-fitting tennis clothes and rusty sedan, or his sweet but alienated daughter Shannon, with her vaguely grunge mannerisms?
To my surprise, delight and terror, shooting began in the Brianza region, north of Milan, in late 2013. My only connection to what was happening was photographs from the set. What I saw was both deeply familiar and infinitely strange. It was as if the novel’s characters, after all that striving and suffering in the Connecticut suburbs, had gone on a restorative holiday.
Shooting wrapped; the long process of editing began. I dared not ask if people were happy with what they were seeing. The film was scheduled to premiere in late December 2013. In the meantime, I was invited by Virzi to serve on the jury of the Torino Film Festival, where he was artistic director. I arrived in Italy in late November, less than a month before the film’s debut. Virzi orchestrated our meeting on the red carpet at the festival’s premiere, providing me with my first encounter with paparazzi.
The director turned out to be a warm, witty, slightly mischievous man, who immediately inspired great confidence. To my stumbling questions about the film, he answered that I would be able to judge for myself the next day, when a subtitled copy would be delivered to my hotel.
It was waiting for me when I awoke, jet-lagged and disoriented. As I inserted the memory stick into my computer, all the anxieties of the past two years flooded through me. I wondered if I could judge the film at all, given my familiarity with the story and my unfamiliarity with the culture in which it was now set. The project’s strange pedigree was reinforced when my very non-Italian-looking name appeared amid all those Francescos and Fabrizios in the opening credits. I consoled myself with the thought that, should the whole thing turn out to be a disaster, it was unlikely my mother would ever see it.
By the time the film’s time code hit 10 minutes, my doubts had vanished. Virzi’s adaptation turned out to be remarkably faithful to my story, yet seemed to be saying something crucial about the foreign country in which I now found myself. Although I understood little of what was being said, I knew exactly what was happening.
Of course, certain aspects of the story had been lost in translation. My hedge-fund manager, played by a brilliantly in-form Fabrizio Gifuni, was no longer a self-made man, but the scion of a titled family. And Fabrizio Bentivoglio, as the estate agent whose ambition drives the tragedy, gave his performance a sinister, preening quality I’d never pictured in my slovenly misfit.
On the other hand, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (sister of Carla Bruni) totally captured the monied ennui and shallow romanticism I had hoped readers would discover in Manning’s pampered wife, Carrie, while the talented newcomer Matilde Gioli perfectly embodied the brave defiance I laboured to evoke in Shannon. And the novel’s themes were intact, proving that some things — greed, envy, love for one’s children — know no borders.
The greatest departure came in the screenplay, which elegantly simplified the complicated plot, yet somehow kept intact the main storylines. At several points, I found myself wishing I had made the same choices as Bruni and Piccolo. Most humbling was the fact that the memorable final words — delivered with a chillingly dead smile by Bruni Tedeschi, and resonant enough to serve as a tag line in the trailer — are nowhere to be found in my novel.
The film was released a month later. The reviews were glowing. To everyone’s surprise, it briefly topped the Italian box office. It also sparked a controversy. Virzi, whose political sympathies fall decidedly to the left of centre, had made some impolitic remarks about the wealthy Brianza region that had caused offence to local business leaders and their lapdog politicians. The director was accused of slander; legal action was threatened. I was drawn into the fray when an Italian reporter asked me if my work had provoked similar controversy in the US. I struggled to explain the mystifying absence of class envy in my deeply divided nation, as well as the tendency of American hedge-fund managers to take accusations of greed as badges of honour.
Now that awards season has ended and the DVD has come out, I have begun to understand how Il Capitale Umano became an artistic and commercial success in its unlikely voyage from the land of Cheever to the shores of Lake Como. The foremost reason is the undeniable talent of its actors, screenwriters and, most particularly, director. But I also think Italy was ready for this type of story. As the country emerged from the long, corrupt reign of Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps it needed to take a hard look at the rapidly changing social and economic landscape he had fashioned. Virzi’s film provided that mirror. In many ways, the Italy of Il Capitale Umano is not unlike my own nation a decade earlier, a place where economic and social crises are causing people to re-examine the Mephistophelian deals they make in order to prosper and succeed.
My novel’s life as a stranger in a strange land looks set to continue. There is now talk of other adaptations: a miniseries in the UK; foreign-language versions in India and South Korea; even, in a move set to warm the heart of postmodernists, an American adaptation of the Italian adaptation of my American novel. My beleaguered suburbanites might want to renew their passports.
Human Capital opens in the UK and Ireland on Sept 26
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