Italian Studies

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The (mis)adventures of a writer who suddenly loses her memory in New York City, Italian Studies boldly tries something original with the old “movie amnesiac” formula and swerves the usual mechanics: loss and recovery. Instead, writer/director Adam Leon sets out to explore what it actually feels like to suddenly have no idea of who or what you are.

Vanessa Kirby plays the amnesiac author in search of character, a Brit in New York who wanders into a hardware store to buy something, having first tied her dog up outside. Nothing obvious happens while she’s in there, but on leaving, this pretty blonde walks away from the store, leaving the dog behind. She has no idea it’s hers.

Adrift in the city with nowhere to go, she doesn’t do the obvious and direct herself towards a police station. Instead she wanders about trying not to look lost. At one point a couple of Jewish guys ask her if she’s Jewish. She’s no idea. At a hot dog shack she gets into conversation with Simon (Simon Brickner), a gobby, possibly stoned teenager, and eventually heads off with him into the night, all the while appearing to be locked in an internal battle to keep up appearances at the very least, while trying to work out what’s gone wrong. Maybe she’s banking on Simon being safe, on account of his age.

She’s a woman in peril, but Leon isn’t telling the story that way. With a warm fuzzy camera and a soundtrack of whooshing ambience, he boldly attempts a survey of an interior mindscape where all the main markers have been obliterated.

Eventually, through a chance meeting, this woman discovers that she is in fact called Alina Reynolds and is a writer with at least one book of short stories to her name. Using this as her sole reference point, Alina tries to stage some sort of comeback, using Simon and his teenage friends as an impromptu support group. Here, Leon contrasts the nervy, in-the-moment energy of the teenagers with the soupiness of Alina’s subjectivity – bright and opinionated versus fuzzy and virtually characterless. She’s asking the kids these questions as a way of researching a new book, she says, but she also looks also like a woman trying to fathom how identity is constructed from memory.

Simon Brickner as Simon
Simon Brickner as Simon

What ambition this film has. Interiority is a hard nut to crack in screen drama but Leon is going one further, into an interiority that’s largely absent. To pull this off the acting needs to be exceptional, and Kirby really is. She’s always been versatile, one minute playing Princess Margaret in The Crown, another turning up as a glam badass in that Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw movie, but she’s in terra incognita here, in the sort of role that doesn’t bag awards because no cannons fire and no flares shoot into the sky. But watch Kirby’s face, searching the whole time, out in the world and inside her own mind, looking for clues.

This film did particularly badly at the box office when it was on the big screen. A squeak over $3k on week one, around $600 on week two. The review aggregators didn’t go crazy for it either. But the critics who loved it, really loved it – “Unforgettable from the jump,” said Rolling Stone, for instance.

It’s typical Leon, in many respects. He’s a moviemaker who in films like 2012’s Gimme the Loot or 2016’s Tramps delivers momentousness by stealth, always running the risk of audiences not quite getting what he’s about because they’ve mistaken the magician’s assistant for the trick.

Highly recommended if you like your movies highly subjective and woozily impressionistic.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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