Italian Studies, a newly released independent film by Adam Leon isn’t about Italy or anything Italian. That’s just to set the record straight so you don’t get suckered into watching this movie based on the wrong premise—as I did, or any Italophile might.
In fact, the story is set in bustling New York City, with cinematography so fully immersive that the traffic, grit, streets densely crowded with people, and sirens of emergency vehicles almost assault your senses. Many of the scenes were filmed in Chelsea and lower Manhattan.
When the story opens, Alina Reynolds (played by English stage, TV, and film actress Vanessa Kirby) is visiting New York. She wanders into a local hardware store near Canal Street, for some reason that remains elusive. She scans the shelves not looking or finding anything specific. She leaves empty-handed without retrieving her adorable pooch, which she seems to have forgotten and abandoned outside the door.
Suddenly, we (and she) realize that she’s lost in the anonymity of the city without any sense of who or where she is.
“I don’t remember who I am or where I’m supposed to go,” she says.
The etiology of this memory loss is never explained.
Alina sets foot, walking aimlessly through the streets, presumably trying to rediscover her identity without much success. The only anchor she finds is a gangly teenager named Simon (played by Simon Brickner) who seems to be about a decade younger than she.
He introduces her to his friends, with whom she forms a bond, as she tries to reclaim her identity as they are poised to find theirs. One clue that emerges: A woman on the street recognizes her as the author of a book called “Italian Studies” because she had attended a reading.
I found myself as disoriented as the protagonist. It was hard to discern any logical thread from the vignettes in the movie. Also jarring was my difficulty hearing/understanding the dialogue: The film has a lot of live music and Alina is a “low talker” with an accent.
The “plot” if there is one was a collaboration between the filmmaker and Kirby who had worked together before. She also is credited as an Executive Producer of Italian Studies.
“Vanessa and I had been talking about concepts that we wanted to explore. We were both very interested in the idea of what it means to be present and how we connect with the environment around us,” said Leon in program notes released for the film. He calls it a “dream of a movie” somewhat akin to Alice in Wonderland falling into a hole of self-discovery before finding herself.
Feeling a bit like an anachronism, the movie was filmed pre-pandemic in a vibrant city when people didn’t worry about coming up close to one another in enclosed places. I found the story haunting, sad, and somewhat disturbing because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening (perhaps, the intent of the filmmaker).
Film critic Roger Ebert has termed this experimental movie more experiential than narrative. Although it was only 78 minutes long, it failed to hold my attention.
Where to watch Italian Studies:
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Italian Studies premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The independent film is being shown at IFC in New York City and is available for rental on Amazon Prime.
Adam Leon is an award-winning director and screenwriter. His feature debut, Gimme The Loot, won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW, was an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, and was released theatrically around the world. His follow-up, Tramps, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 where it was acquired by Netflix.
Watch the Italian Studies Trailer on YouTube
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