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Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast fall for each other

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Human Capital is an Italian “network narrative” with overlapping threads in one-percenter-land and the middle class. The lowest member of society in the film, an overworked waiter catering a fancy party, is killed on his bike in the opening scene, which inconveniences the members of the other classes.

The film is not overtly about class, but by naming itself “Human Capital” and by explaining itself in a closing title card (in Italy the phrase is a legal term for the dollar value of a life), the film invites much more contemplation than it might otherwise deserve.

Dino’s Story

Dino sits at the big boy table
Dino sits at the big boy table

The film divides itself into chapters named after three characters. Middle class Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) starts things by dropping off his daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) at the home of her boyfriend Massi Bernaschi (Guglielmo Pinelli). Dino is dazzled by the Bernaschi mansion and takes it upon himself to wander the grounds. He waves at Signor Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) playing tennis with his business partners and manages to get himself invited onto the court.

Dino now thinks he’s in with the Bernaschi crowd and talks his way into an investment with Bernaschi that he can’t afford. Dino’s story peaks at a benefit dinner for the local high school. Dino sits at the big boy table, but snubbed by Bernaschi and the other investors. His wife ruins things (in his mind) by being sick from her pregnancy and needing to leave early.

The next day, Dino confronts Bernaschi about the investment — it looks like it’s not going to pay off after all and in fact Dino may be ruined. He comes home in a financial panic, only to be overtaken by his daughter who storms up to her room. He asks if it’s about her boyfriend Massi? “He’s not my boyfriend!”

These threads — the Bernaschi money, the teenage breakup, the catered benefit dinner — are picked up and elaborated on in the later stories.

Flaws and All

Weaving a complete picture out of different stories is not a new technique ( Traffic springs to mind as a similar example). Human Capital handles the structure better than most. It’s very good about letting each character speak for himself. None of the stories are too small, nor do they make too-convenient references to the overlaps. Each chapter in Human Capital feels natural.

Director Paolo Virzì and his cast are very good at showing the characters completely - flaws, insecurities, good hearts and all. So Bentivoglio’s Dino is a dorky man whose class envy is embarrassing. But his striving is genuine — he really wants to make something of himself and he will not pass up an opportunity to try.

Carla Bernaschi (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) gets the second story. She spends her husband’s money like water, and might be too willing to use people. But she genuinely wants to make a difference in her community. She sees a crumbling theater and makes an effort not just to save it but to revive it.

Serena gets the third story, and her teenage brain is flaw enough. Her stepmom, Dino’s wife, is a psychologist. They share an interest in a young man named Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo).

Human Capital played at the Boulder International Film Festival this month, and it has a strong reputation on the art house and foreign-film circuit. While I don’t think it’s one of the year’s best films, it is a solid, well-acted drama. Its network-narrative structure is handled here with just the right touch — intriguing, but never calling too much attention to itself.

The final title card probably overexplains things, but it will give you a new way to think about what you’ve just seen and anchor it in your memory for days to come.