“Does memory even matter?” the initially anonymous woman (Vanessa Kirby) at the center of “Italian Studies” asks, finding herself amongst a group of teenagers late at night who are asking about her past. They don’t have an answer for her, too young to have much to remember themselves and if she could, she might not be hanging out with them when there are surely more suitable crowds. But this is where life has brought her, along with a mischievous kid named Simon she met at a Papaya Dog in the middle of Chelsea, so she’s giving into the moment, and by extension that’s what Adam Leon asks of audiences in his third feature, a film that thrusts the writer/director’s love of New York City and the magic it holds front and center with the notion lurking that as much as one is shaped by their experiences, it can close one off from having new ones.
When the protagonist of “Italian Studies” admits she’s lost in the film’s opening frame, it seems like a throwaway line as she eventually makes her way into a recording studio where she’s greeted warmly by others, but as much as she adapts to the situation at hand, putting on a brave face that doesn’t invite questions and others readily making up for any uncomfortable pause in the conversation, it’s revealed on a smoke break outside that anything beyond the present moment has escaped her. Leon offers little diagnosis for her amnesia, essentially allowing the audience to fill in their own gaps as she does and watching as she pulls together enough details to be whoever she needs to be at a given time to carry on a conversation. Eventually, she is given a kernel of information after being recognized on the street by a fan of her novels, sending her down a road that can give shape to her thoughts, but rather than come to an understanding of the character through scrutiny of how she behaves, it’s from experiencing what she does, seeing her surroundings with fresh eyes when it’s brimming with possibilities.
The phrase “all walks of life” takes on an almost literal dimension in the streets of Manhattan where the torrents of people that threaten to overwhelm Kirby’s character aren’t there in the frame to inspire a feeling of confusion, but rather curiosity as to where they’re headed and what they’re up as you wonder the same, not only of them but of her. Early on, the film reminds of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” having the actress engage with strangers as if she’s soaking up everything she can about them, with the bursts of choppy percussion in Nicholas Britell’s inventive score acting as processing information she can’t entirely comprehend and the intensity of being continually awake to her circumstances conveyed in the intense lights that cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz revels in. Relying on her wits as a means of survival, every interaction takes on a live-wire quality in which a fear she might be found out is animating, but at a time in her life when you’d expect her experience to have hardened her in some way, being untethered to any specific idea of who she is is equally energizing.
When seen in light of Leon’s previous films “Gimme the Loot” and “Tramps,” both charming capers in which being too young to know better was often celebrated, “Italian Studies” follows the thread in a more dramatic way, but no less compelling when being adventurous has its rewards, particularly when the filmmaker takes audiences into corners of New York in such a way it feels as if it’s revealing its secrets to you. As an actress that has always held onto an intriguing air of mystery to her, Kirby is ideal playing someone as enigmatic as the place she’s in, pushing past confusion to explore the entire gamut of emotions that come with creating your own context when no other is readily available. Ultimately, being human is all you need and drawing on all the senses, “Italian Studies” makes you feel alive.
“Italian Studies” will screen virtually through the Tribeca Film Festival starting on June 13th at 6 pm EST until June 21st.