The fear that the new Italian drama Days and Clouds mines is precisely the one that runs through American politics. It’s the middle-class anxiety (ascendant in down-turning America, even more so in market-reforming Italy) that all one has attainted can be gone in a flash: one sickness, one downsizing, one accident and poof! Gone.

If this sounds like a bleak subject to explore, well, that’s because it is. Still, there are enough moments of subtle humor and hope in Days and Clouds to render the shrewd film palatable, even as its somewhat painful insights are absorbed. Directed by Silvio Soldini, who is best known for 2000’s more whimsical couple-in-crisis tale Bread and Tulips, Days and Clouds peers in on a middle-aged couple, Elsa (Margherita Buy) and Michele (Antonio Albanese) as their marriage descends to the breaking point.

The catalyst is Michele’s ousting from the company he founded and, thus, the couple’s disintegrating financial situation. Michele and Elsa are forced to sell their home and Elsa, who has just received a doctorate degree in art restoration, gives up her career of choice for jobs of necessity, working simultaneously as a secretary and telemarketer. Michele is rejected in a string of interviews, begins to do some menial labor and, finally, becomes so depressed that he doesn’t get out of bed.

But Days and Clouds’ primary focus is the financial blow’s emotional reverberation through the marriage. This undertaking is supported by exceedingly strong, intricate performances by the two leads but even more so by its finespun script. Penned by four writers—two female and two male—Days and Clouds’ unique strength is its balanced understanding how financial crises are experienced by men and women. While Elsa is faced with the shocking prospect of diminished expectations, Michele contends with the collapse of his self-identity as a provider.

Days and Clouds is highly character-driven and Soldini makes little use of symbolism or other artistic liberties, preferring, for the most part, to follow his subjects with unobtrusive, handheld camera work. But there is one metaphor that reveals something pertinent to the filmmakers’ intentions. Elsa’s graduate work is to recover a fresco that was long ago painted over. As she removes the glossy, white paint from the painting—and, in parallel, as the comforts of Elsa and Michele’s middle-class security dissolve—one must ask, “What’s underneath it all?” That is, sometimes it takes the destruction of what we think makes us happy to realize what truly matters.

Days and Clouds
Directed by Silvio Soldini
Written by Doriana Leondeff, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli and Silvio Soldini
With Margherita Buy, Antonio Albanese, Giuseppe Battiston and Alba Rohrwacher

The Screen
115 min., NR