A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2022

ITALIAN STUDIES jj
 

2022, Unrated, 81 mins.

Vanessa Kirby as Alina Reynolds  /  Simon Bruckner as Simon  /  Annabel Hoffman as Annabel  /  Annika Wahlsten as Annika  /  Fred Hechinger as Matt  /  Maya Hawke as Erin McCloud  /  David Ajala as Ade

Written and directed by Adam Leon

Adam Leon's ITALIAN STUDIES perhaps works much better as a collection of promising moments than it does as a fully realized drama that uses its premise to its fullest.  

It's the kind of film that I found both compelling and exacerbating to endure in equal measure, and even though Leon certainly doesn't take the road most traveled approach with his story it nevertheless gets bogged down by its own self-indulgence.  And the central hook of the film is decent enough - a woman suddenly loses her memory and is then forced to navigate her way back home through the strange and newly unfamiliar streets of New York - and some of the inherent mysteries to be deciphered here are tantalizing enough, but ITALIAN STUDIES is too often myopically concerned with being a visceral experience as opposed to a dramatic one, which is what ultimately pushed me away from it by the time the end credits rolled by. 

But, to be sure, it has the ever increasingly versatile Vanessa Kirby at the helm and leading the charge, who has proven over the last few years to be cagey performer that's unafraid of any genre challenge (she's acclimated herself finely to everything from robust action roles in HOBBS AND SHAW to dramatic ones in PIECES OF A WOMAN to her terribly underrated work in last year's superb LGTBQ themed period romance THE WORLD TO COME).  She plays the aforementioned amnesiac in ITALIAN STUDIES named Alina, and as the film opens we see this London-based writer doing mundane errands in The Big Apple, making one fateful pit stop at a hardware store.  Something just starts to feel off for her, and by the time she ventures outside she immediately draws a blank as to who she is, what she's doing here, and where her home is.  Even more horrifically, she wanders away from the store completely forgetting that she did come with her pet dog, but because she suffers instant memory loss she abandons the sad pooch without even knowing why.  That poor dog.   

This is pretty alarming stuff, to say the least.  Disoriented and not sure what to do, Alina begins to wander aimlessly through the New York streets without any rhyme or reason.  What else could she possibly do?  She's essentially rendered as a total blank slate, which in turn gives way to a level of liberated freedom in her to pretty much go anywhere or talk to anyone she feels up to.  Along her existentialist dilemma and journey she comes to the understanding that she might actually be a celebrated author that has written a collection of short stories called "Italian Studies."  Granted, she has no full idea whether or not she actually is this revered writer or not, but opts to go along with the prospect, which takes her into the inner circle of youthful Manhattanites via a chance encounter with Simon (Simon Bruckner), and from there the film breaks off sporadically into faux-documentary segments involving her interviewing these young adults and learning about their frailties and insecurities.  The question remains, however, as to what reality for Alina is real and what is just pure make-believe. 

 

 

There have been many films that have tackled memory loss in one form or another, but what ITALIAN STUDIES does is, to its credit, fairly unique, especially for the avant garde choices it takes with tackling it.  There are very little attempts made by Leon to hone in on the particulars as to how and why this has happened to Alina; it just afflicted her and literally came out of relative nowhere.  What ITALIAN STUDIES does capture well is the initial trauma of immediate memory loss and the perpetual haziness that fogs people when trying to process the most simple of recollections.  When you don't know your name or where you live or even your history then forging ahead with the most simplest of conversations with strangers becomes a hellish ordeal.  It's almost like Alina is like a computer that has been completely rebooted, losing everything she once had in storage.  ITALIAN STUDIES, stylistically at least, mirrors the free-flowing disorientation that she suffers from throughout, and the narrative segues haphazardly from one divergent tangent to the next.  The nature of the storytelling here is purposely fractured and lacking in symmetry, which allows for viewers to get inside Alina's splintered headspace.   

Complimenting all of this is the film's stupendous cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, who paints the screen with highly saturated fluorescent colors of the streets at day and night that give individual scenes an enrapturing, dreamlike aura.  Another intriguing angle tied into this centers around the conversations that Alina has with this youth group that she has infiltrated, which forces us in the audience to contemplate whether or not her interviews with them are real or imagined.  Beyond that, what of the passage of time?  Has Alina been wandering around with memory loss for a night...or several days?  The film remains intriguingly aloof on answering that, which further embellishes the potential disconnect here between the real and unreal.  I think that one of the nagging problems with Leon's doc-styled interviews inserted into the larger story is that they mark such a stark aesthetic contrast from the rest of the film, not to mention that they are frequently so loosely assembled together here that they border on distracting.  More often than not, I was left with the notion that ITALIAN STUDIES doesn't entirely know what kind of film it wants to be or where it's main focal point of interest resides.  I don't mind roughly and loosely assembled dramas that experiment with (or transcend) our widely held understanding of the basic grammar and syntax of storytelling, but the aimlessness and ambiguity of ITALIAN STUDIES made it hard for me to simply care about Alina or her plight at times.  As an experimental sensory experience, Leon's work is commendably interesting, but I wasn't emotionally moved or involved with much of what was transpiring with Alina.  If anything, ITALIAN STUDIES emerges as a cold and distancing mood piece, but as a drama it's pretty flat-footed. 

I sure do respect Kirby's work in the film, though, and her performance truly captures the confusion and ethereal wonderment that washes over Alina when everything about her identity is whisked away in an instant.  Kirby also evokes the paralyzing frustration that her character experiences while simply trying to remember anything and what to do moving forward...and all while in a cognitive fog.  I also liked Simon Brickner here as the social awkward and troubled teen that crosses paths with the beleaguered Alina and allows her into his inner circle of misfit pals.  His individual moments with Kirby have an unpredictable edge and help lead you into what's to come.  Yet, for as richly textured as the performances are here on top of an engaging visual design and off kiltered approach to the material, ITALIAN STUDIES might simply be too unapproachable and out there for most audiences as a drama that delves into disassociated levels of consciousness, self awareness and the fragile state of those afflicted with a most peculiar brand of memory loss.  Leon's film is conceptually fascinating and Kirby's presence always commands our attention, but overall it's a mixed bag of squandered creative opportunities all struggling to work together to find meaning in it all.  

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