There are many, many movies that have used amnesia as a one-stop-shopping dramatic cliché, or an easy source of conflict, pathos or pity. Adam Leon’s Italian Studies is one of the few — the only? — films to force viewers into a disassociative mindset right alongside its main character. (At least, one of the few without the words “directed by David Lynch” attached to it.) It isn’t just that viewers have no idea who this woman really is, though pieces of the puzzle eventually do fall into place. It’s more that we’re pushed into this lo-fi mystery on her terms, and prompted to see so much of the world through her uncomprehending eyes.
The attack is two-pronged: Leon’s filmmaking takes on the fractured, free-flowing anxiety of a bad dream, helped immensely by the film’s stream-of-conscious approach to editing, sound design that suggests a radio transmission stuck between stations and composer Nicholas Britell’s droning, synth-heavy score. Meanwhile, Kirby’s performance gives you the sense that this person is truly in a fugue state, reacting to things completely in the moment while trying to mask her condition to those she encounters. There’s an almost childlike sense of wonder and confusion as Alina tries remember something, anything, about her identity.
It’s in Italian Studies’ first half, when the filmmaker and his star seem to truly be working in tandem to give you a woman on the verge of an existential breakdown, that the movie turns into something that’s almost experiential, immersing you in this character’s wobbly, unstable world. Leon has been a fringe player on the microbudget side of the Amerindie world, but he’s a vital one: Both Gimme the Loot (2012) and Tramps (2016) give you an incredible sense of New York from a street-level, round-the-way perspective without posturing or pursuing agendas at the expense of storytelling.