Italian Studies is a masterclass of dreamlike, disorienting filmmaking, which makes the film inviting even when its meaning remains unclear.
There are two categories of film that I find the hardest to talk about: films that are so thoroughly unremarkable that there’s very little to say, and films that generate an emotional response despite not being logically clear. Italian Studies falls firmly in that second category. Written and directed by Adam Leon, this film stars Vanessa Kirby as a woman who inexplicably finds herself losing her memories, not even knowing what her own name is. As she wanders New York City, she comes across several younger individuals, including a man named Simon (Simon Brickner), by whom she finds herself seemingly inspired to write a novel … one that may possibly be a follow-up to a series of short stories that she might have authored.
Italian Studies is a film that I enjoyed watching from start to finish. Never did a moment pass where I wasn’t invested in seeing where it was going. But due to its confounding nature, if you were to ask me what it’s really about or what exactly happens throughout, I would be drawing a bit of a blank. So, at this point, I can’t be sure whether or not this film’s story makes sense for what it’s trying to do. What I can say without question is that Italian Studies is a masterclass at deliberately disorienting filmmaking. The first half in particular tries to put you in a similar state to our lead: confused, trapped in some uncanny valley, unsure of what’s happening or why. This is achieved to incredible effect through techniques such as the distortion of images through glass and light (including some beautiful golden lens flares that add an almost ghostly aura), blocking that often puts the actors partially out of the frame, handheld camerawork, objects passing in front of the shots so that you can never really grasp the moment, abrupt transitions from one scene to the next, and even dialogue that’s out of sync before going back into sync within the same shot, blurring one’s sense of passing time.
All of these choices would be just incompetent filmmaking in a more straightforward story, but they thrive here because they take away the viewer’s sense of stability and structure. The grainy quality, somewhat tight aspect ratio and several shots that frame a character through a smaller “window” (like through a bookcase or in narrow spaces between walls) also add to the sense of entrapment in this disorienting state. There is rarely a steady, fully clear shot that puts you at ease, and the film feels very much like a fever dream. That is, until our main character begins her “mission” in the second half. This is where the filmmaking of Italian Studies begins to stabilize a bit, which I interpret as indicative of the character now finding some semblance of clarity in this new pursuit of hers. It’s this shift, as well as the many beautifully composed shots that couldn’t have been achieved without serious talent involved, that lead me to believe that every unconventional filmmaking choice in Italian Studies was intended exactly as I’ve just described, rather than accidentally working out that way.
But it’s not just because of the filmmaking that I was drawn into this story. Vanessa Kirby is magnetic as always. She doesn’t go for a more panicked performance like some may have in this role, but rather she portrays a woman who is trying to keep herself collected and maintain a hold of what little order she has. Someone who nearly steals the show from her is Simon Brickner, who takes what could have been very grating dialogue and gives it its own very endearing personality. He plays a young man trying to figure out his life in a sense, which makes him an interesting companion to our lead, who is literally trying to figure out her life. The performances all around carry a lot of introspective weight to them as every character contemplates their pasts, their loves, their desires, and the dilemmas of whether or not to change for the world or demand the world change for them.
As you may suspect from its premise, Italian Studies is designed to confuse viewers as to what’s really happening, when it happened, or even if it happened, to a point where even now, I couldn’t tell you the correct order of events. I can, however, discern that there’s some sort of suggested cyclical nature to everything. Events that occurred in the past are being mirrored to some degree, such as Kirby’s character gathering with these younger people and being inspired by them. Without giving anything away, I think that she is indeed who she begins claiming to be, and that she’s being driven by the impulses that possibly stem from the remnants of her missing memories. Or maybe that drive speaks to who she is as a person even without those memories. The main theme of Italian Studies seems to be the chase for fulfillment that often sends people in circles, bringing us down different versions of the same path. The journey our protagonist takes is possibly an extreme, unexplained manifestation of that. Or maybe she’s not who she claims to be and is simply fulfilling a void through another person’s life.
This is all a very uncertain analysis on my part. I do plan on rewatching the film to see if anything I’m saying or thinking holds water, if I end up having a different interpretation, or if there’s not really anything meaningful at all to be found here. Whatever I end up making of Italian Studies down the line, though, I can’t deny that the raw experience of watching it is very enjoyable. It’s so well-crafted and well-performed that I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt to some degree that it knows what it’s doing narratively, while still being cautious. Italian Studies is definitely one of those films you need to feel before you begin to understand. That’s always a huge gamble, and I’ve had my share of such films that I ended up not liking, even with some critically acclaimed works like The Green Knight. So, I can completely understand why anyone would dislike this film. But something this unique and distinguished, as well as refreshingly short, is at least worth one viewing.
Magnolia Pictures released Italian Studies in theaters and on demand January 14, 2022.