“Uninterested in giving us answers, or maybe not even in asking that many questions. Sometimes this works, though in other times, the movie’s liminal style leaves it with paradoxically little room.”
by Ken Bakely
Her memory’s just gone. Early on in Adam Leon’s Italian Studies, Alina (Vanessa Kirby), a British writer in New York, is going about her business one day, browsing the aisles of a store, and suddenly it’s all gone – she doesn’t know who she is, where she is, why she’s there, what she’s doing. Sometimes, someone will clue her into a piece of her identity, and she’s as surprised as anyone else. What’s exactly causing this is never explained. But the point of the movie is less to piece together a puzzle but to explore the headspace she finds herself in – suspended in time, without obligation, without a sense of placement. As an extension of her work, she, on some level, lives in her head. Now, she doesn’t really recall “her work” at all, but the act of internally processing and questioning becomes one of the many examined ideas that form this deliberately slight, scattershot mosaic. Leon has crafted a simple premise and plunges us into it without elaboration. The movie is not even eighty minutes long, and even that can feel like a stretch sometimes. It’s diversely observed on a moment-to-moment level – forming a rough and bumpy texture of its setting, and sharply-drawn sketches of its growing array of characters – but doesn’t amount to much. This is a self-appointed Experience-with-a-capital-E in some empirical sense of the word, uninterested in giving us answers, or maybe not even in asking that many questions. Sometimes this works, though in other times, the movie’s liminal style leaves it with paradoxically little room.
But Kirby is good here no matter what, anchoring the story and giving it a sense of visceral, human immediacy. It’s a difficult position, trying to simultaneously convey Alina’s sense of complete isolation from herself and the efforts she takes to try and build something in its place. Without anything else to do, she wanders the streets of Manhattan, forging makeshift connections and using whatever knowledge about herself she can pull together. She meets a group of college-age teens whom she interviews, apparently for a book, asking about their hopes and fears. Particularly close to her is Simon, a slightly eccentric young man who is played with extraordinary confidence by Simon Brickner; the character’s breezy yet complicated persona comes through even in the script’s minimal outlining. Brickner brings a cutting, startling clarity to this fictional Simon that is formed from contrasts – goofy and earnest, turning between the two on a dime, always with something to observe. You understand why Alina is drawn to him, and it’s that unique variety of human connection – unexplained, unexpected – that turns out to be one of Italian Studies greatest strengths.
At the same time, it’s hard to think about the movie along linear expectations of what it could or wants to be. Leon seems interested in creating vibes as much as anything else – somewhere along the lines of Brett Jutkiewicz’s soft-focus, misty, gauzy cinematography – though certainly the attention that he gives to his main character, an artist, having to figure out her own identity through the expressions and opinions of others is hardly lost. In a way, this represents some of the internal struggle that Italian Studies incurs: there are these little sparks of ideas and parallelisms that the film seemingly wants to quash, finding it counterintuitive to its emulation of Alina’s disoriented mind. A movie like this, as deliberately open-ended as it is when in progress, can exist within wide swaths of territory, but the boundaries are spindly and delicate. Big pronunciations are out of place, and the few that are present stand out. Consider a scene when Alina wanders into a library and finds something she’s written, as part of an effort to understand who she is. Soon, she finds a copy of her most acclaimed work – a short story collection called Italian Studies. That’s what the movie’s title means, we realize. It’s a meta-bolt that strikes with uncharacteristic explicitness. After all, it could have been called anything, or nothing at all.