Movie Review: “Italian Studies”

As the end credits roll in writer-director Adam Leon’s new film, “Italian Studies,” the character played by Vanessa Kirby is given the name “Alina Reynolds.” She does go by this name for a little while in the movie, but until the name appears at the film’s conclusion, I wouldn’t have placed money on that actually being her name. This is one of those movies where you’re never quite sure what is real and what is imagined and what has happened and what hasn’t and seeing Kirby’s credit may provide a key to unlock some of the questions that arise as the movie is playing, but it might not be a key worth having.

Okay, that may have been a lot for an opening paragraph, so let’s take a second and try to break some of the tale down.

At the outset of the film, this woman played by Kirby arrives at a recording story. After listening for a while she steps outside and smokes a cigarette with one of the other women who had been there watching the session. This second woman asks Kirby’s character if the latter doesn’t remember her, after all they had met a while back. Kirby’s character denies knowing her, denies knowing the person who introduced them (Simon, played by Simon Brickner), and then asks if this occurred that time Kirby’s character lost her dog. We then flashback to the tale of losing the dog which is when (maybe) most of the story takes place.

And that story in the flashback?

Well, that’s where things get weird, because it isn’t just one story. Or, it isn’t a story that just takes place at one time. The vast majority of the movie is Vanessa Kirby’s character wandering around New York City, meeting different people, doing different things, and often not being quite sure of who she is… or seemingly not sure. Sometimes it appears to be summer and the character is wearing a short sleeve top. Other times it’s far colder and she’s wearing a sweater and jacket. The movie jumps back and forth between the outfits (and periods? dream state vs. reality?) repeatedly, forcing the viewer to pay attention quite closely to what is happening when and try to piece it all together.

Beyond that, we can surmise that at some of the points (all the points?), Kirby’s character doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t have any money. She doesn’t have a home she remembers and to which she returns. She is unmoored from her history, from her life, telling people she doesn’t know if she’s a vegetarian and is unsure about the size of her family. When someone randomly stops her on the street and asks Kirby’s character if she’s “Alina Reynolds,” Kirby’s character answers in the affirmative, but it’s impossible (without external sources) to say whether she’s telling the truth, isn’t sure, or just wants to hide whatever has caused her current mental state.

Reynolds is an author and it might be that some of what we see happen in the movie takes place within one of her short stories. It’s possible that it’s going to be used as fodder for one of her later stories. It’s possible that Kirby isn’t Reynolds at all and is just trying to find something that feels real.

It is also, quite intriguing. Running fewer than 80 minutes, we enter the life of this woman who doesn’t know who she is and watch as she tries to work it out. We watch as she tries to fake it. We watch and guess where the truth lies.

Viewed in this fashion, the movie is really undeniably special. It asks the viewer to search for the truth. It asks the viewer what matters and what we would do in such a situation.

The official synopsis for the movie does give Alina Reynolds as our main character and does refer to her as an author and, in doing so, diminishes some of the magic in the film. It still causes those in the audience to try to piece together what is happening when and there are still moments that may be up in the air, but somehow it feels less special, not unique. This particular key to solving the puzzle somehow hurts the wondrousness of said puzzle.

Consequently, I encourage you to forget the entirety of the last paragraph or to believe that the synopsis is lying. I encourage you to question whether Vanessa Kirby’s credit as “Alina Reynolds” at the film’s close is true or whether it’s just the filmmakers providing us with a name to make our lives easier (or because the character takes on the moniker, true or false, during the movie).

Rather than being half the battle, sometimes knowing is our own demise.

photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Categories: review

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