Master moviemaker Costa-Gavras, who has won an Academy Award for editing, couldn't have timed this film better. The same week that JP Morgan Chase reached a record proposed settlement of $13 billion with the federal government, Costa-Gavras's "Capital," a scathing critique of the banksters by the patron saint of leftist cinema, comes to America's screens.
Costa-Gavras, who brought us Z, State of Siege, and Missing, this time takes aim at the dubious world of high finance -- and low morals. While he conceived this banking industry thriller before the 2008 collapse of capitalism, it now forms the backdrop for this taut yet witty film, whose tagline is "Money is the Master."
Gabriel Byrne co-stars in "Capital" as the manipulative Dittmar Rigule, a ghoulish, prototypical Ugly American who seeks to impose unregulated U.S.-style business practices on a European-based financial institution. Robber baron Dittmar schemes to turn Phenix Bank's new CEO, the youthful Marc Tourneuil (drolly played by Moroccan-born Gad Elmaleh, who appeared in Woody Allen's 2011 Midnight in Paris), into the Yanks' puppet. But Tourneuil, who has a mind of his own, resists playing Pinocchio to Dittmar's Geppetto.
Actor Gad Elmaleh in "Capital."
In an interview with this writer, Costa-Gavras said that while researching the script for "Capital" he met with many bankers. "Everyone of them told me what we need in the future is to make rules, to control completely that big system which became a giant around the world. Because there are very few big banks who run the world -- it must be something like 20. Most of them, they're Americans. That's their justification. So more and more they're trying to make a politics and a way of acting like the American banks. As they say, 'to survive.' If not they will be swallowed by the American banks."
The filmmaker described how the European sensibility differs from that of their more aggressive, laissez faire American counterparts: "The money, in a certain way, in Europe was not something you had to show and speak about all the time. To fight for money was to fight for a different life. I think the influence, and I think the Christian influence, the Catholic Church, pushed also a kind of ethics on the banks. Probably was much more apparent than real, but there was a kind of reality to that."
Europe has also had stronger socialist and labor movements.
"Capital" dramatizes these fundamentally different approaches towards the capitalist system. A battle of will and wit ensues as Tourneuil strives to skillfully navigate the shark-infested waters of private enterprise on steroids. Chairman Marc has a penchant for quoting, of all people, Chairman Mao. As he desperately tries to save Phenix from being eaten by the big fishes, Tourneuil encounters a number of colorful characters, including the ethical analyst Maud Baron (Céline Sallette), who works at his bank's London branch.
Maud and Uncle Bruno (Jean-Marie Frin), a traditional French gauchiste who probably fought at the barricades during the worker-student uprising of 1968, represent the film's conscience. During a sharp verbal clash between Bruno and his enterprising nephew over a family luncheon gone wrong, Marc defends globalization as a means of ending poverty that his uncle's internationalism could never accomplish.
Inevitably, as the married Tourneuil moves among the high rollers, he's confronted by temptations, especially in the form of the elusive, sensuous Nassim (played with panache by Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede), whom Dittmar introduces him to during a Miami jaunt. The runway beauty embodies the notion of the fetishism of commodities -- the stuff that capitalist dreams are made of.
As Costa told me: "Nassim is the fantasy of the person who has everything. She's a model -- she's not a white, she's not a Black, either. She's in between somewhere. And the fantasy to have that person -- it's like the cherry on the tart. For the one who has it -- it's enough. That's the idea of Nassim -- it's the dream of a child to have the most beautiful lady. That's essentially the idea. And also to show that even that relationship, they destroy it. And the bankers in a certain way, that is what they do with everybody. They rape everybody."
The behind-the-scenes expose of banksters and their sinister big business manipulations in "Capital" is a fictional, highly entertaining counterpart to Charles Ferguson's Oscar winning 2010 documentary "Inside Job," about Wall Street's massive defrauding of the people -- at taxpayer expense. This fiction film and that doc would make a great double feature.
In any case, the stylish, briskly paced "Capital" seems as if it were helmed by a young director, revealing that at age 80 Costa-Gavras remains a master of political cinema.
"Capital" is 114 minutes long, R-rated and in French with English subtitles and some spoken English. It opens in New York on Oct. 18 and nationwide on Nov. 1.
Watch the trailer:
L.A.-based journalist Ed Rampell's interview with Costa-Gavras was headlined on the cover of the September 2013 issue of The Progressive. The new book co-authored by Rampell, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book drops Nov. 25.