Adam Leon’s Italian Studies opens in a recording studio, where Vanessa Kirby’s Alina Reynolds runs into a strange encounter with a young woman. The woman tells Reynolds that they’ve previously met before, insisting and causing a memoric non-linear whirlwind in the process. In its opening minutes, we are immediately taken from the chilly streets of Great Britain to the hustle of New York City. In its first and admittedly derivative act, Leon focuses on movement through various simplistic scenes. The camera stalks random by-standers as they walk and peruse the swamped streets, without a care in the world. Perhaps it’s a form of rebirth for Alina Reynolds; a nonsensical flashback that specifically concerns a non-existent identity within a sea of unfamiliar faces.
In concept, Italian Studies boasts an innovative premise and even an occasionally enticing central conflict. The film is a city-swelling odyssey, told in a crowded and claustrophobic aspect ratio that traps the viewer into Reynolds’ confused headspace. It’s a film all about dissociation in the big city — and what better way to convey the absurdness of New York normalcy than having a blank-faced Vanessa Kirby as the film’s unreliable mediator. In the process, the film swaps locations ad nauseam, with elongated J & L cuts providing a unique sense of dread. Adjacent to the film’s disorienting perspective, there’s also an additional element of naturalism. The dialogue often feel unscripted, evoking an improvised and quick-witted sensation through each of its perplexed character-driven confrontations.
Yet when stripping away its impressive usage of cinematic language, there’s not much below the surface in Italian Studies. For a film that centers its conflict on the purely psychological, its adjacent explorations on identity and the correlation between environment and personality are ultimately hollow. Leon presents an intriguing thesis, but provides thematically-dour scenes that merely detour Reynolds’ identity crisis. Why should we even bother to care about her interactions in the first place, when her journey isn’t even particularly worth sitting through to begin with? As we learn more information about Reynolds as a person, the more tedious the film becomes in its consistent lack of a clear thematic purpose.
What could have been an investing social-study on how personal influence and reflection ultimately form our growing personalities, our artistic creations, and even our social environment in a contemporary setting — Italian Studies instead settles for a subpar metropolitan odyssey. Part Vanessa Kirby in Manhattan walking simulator, other part intriguing psychological character study — Leon’s film ultimately spends far too much time toying with alluring concepts on mortality, identity, and the spiritual connection between today’s youth and older generations over reworking and focusing on a concise focus.