TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Writer/director Adam Leon’s surreal, sorrowful drama Italian Studies gets major points for daring to pursue unexplored avenues, give the finger to conventional narrative structure, and for saying a lot by saying very little. While it may raise more questions than answers and not quite cohere as a whole, the film nevertheless is poetic and at times breathtakingly beautiful, anchored by a superb cast.
Alina (Vanessa Kirby) is losing her memory. She forgets her dog outside an NYC convenience shop. She wanders around the city, lost. She engages in a conversation about hot dogs with a wise-beyond-his-years teenager, Simon (Simon Brickner), whom she joins on an urban jungle walkabout. “I don’t remember who I am and where I’m supposed to go,” she says.
Italian Studies is structured as a series of vignettes, all telling a 70-minute story. First, there’s the one where Alina begs for food, then steals and runs away from another store. Then she tries to get into a hotel for free. Eventually, an idolizing fan makes Alina recall that she’s a writer of a book called Italian Studies, which she promptly finds at the local library, and autographs, much to the dismay of another visitor. As the vignettes go on, reality and fantasy morph, and things become as disorienting for the viewer as they are for Alina.
“Alina is losing her memory. She forgets her dog outside an NYC convenience shop.”
For example, interspersed with Alina’s overnight plight are interviews she conducted at some point in the past with young men and women, discussing existential things like prospective careers, families, and relationships. Sometimes, she hangs out with them in bars. At other points, she seems to appear in the form of Maya Hawke, an alter ego. We also glimpse Alina in the past, in London, with her significant other, Ade (David Ajala).
Italian Studies brings to mind minimalist character studies, wherein A-listers shed their glossy veneers in the name of Art. See Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind, Michelle Pfeiffer in Where is Kyra?, or Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, for prime examples. For Vanessa Kirby, of course, Leon’s film marks the second such outing, after the contrived Pieces of a Woman. She again elevates the material, perfectly conveying the confusion of a disintegrating mind. However, Alina remains stagnant, hampered by her disconnected state, repeating the same actions over and over again, to her and the film’s detriment.
It’s the naturalistic performances surrounding the lead – all young people playing themselves – that form the heart of the film: developing minds, eager to start shaping their future, looking up to Alina, unaware that’s she lost grasp of the past. Simon Brickner, in particular, makes a lasting impression as a wayward soul.
“You came with me, and that’s a violation of social norms, and I respect that a lot, I really do,” Simon tells Alina in a poignant moment. Would she have even noticed him, had she not had the affliction? “Does memory even matter?” she wonders. Italian Studies poses a series of intriguing questions. However, its fragmented plot is at times a little too diffuse, never quite finding a seamless way to connect the disparate threads. As a result, some of its ideas feel underdeveloped, like splatters of paint on an abstract piece. That said, there’s no denying the artistic merit on display. A bit more studying and Leon will surely become a master of his craft.
Italian Studies screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
"…Vanessa Kirby...elevates the material..."