“Italian Studies” begins on that most minor, familiar but nonetheless disorienting of social embarrassments: You run into a person who knows you, but you cannot for the life of you remember them. For most of us, it’s a simple slip of the memory. For London-based writer Alina, confronted with a blank space in her brain after bumming a cigarette off an apparent stranger, it’s a callback to a longer, more damaging period of dissociation — when, while living in Manhattan, she suddenly forgot who she was for several days. Adam Leon’s minor-key, jaggedly structured indie isn’t concerned with the specific whens, hows and whys of Alina’s out-of-nowhere amnesia, but with the hazy in-the-moment sensation of being struck with it, the sensation of stumbling for the lightswitch in your own mind. That’s a nebulous-sounding dramatic proposition, though as performed by a nervy, live-wire Vanessa Kirby, it becomes a tensely compelling one.
Arriving a year after Kirby’s Oscar-nominated breakout in the emotionally ravaging “Pieces of a Woman,” the quieter, more peculiar “Italian Studies” could as easily have taken that film’s title. For the bulk of its slender 79-minute running time, Alina is gathering her own personal fragments — an interior missing-person investigation far less systematic than the tattoos-and-Post-Its pursuit of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” but with its own needling sense of investigative urgency. It’s a mystery that Leon, regaining the form of his festival-lauded debut “Gimme the Loot” after the less memorable “Tramps,” is content to leave largely unsolved as his film switches and glitches between timelines and states of consciousness. There’s a longer, meatier psychodrama to be made from the same teasing premise, but it might not have this one’s glimmery poetry.
Leon and Kirby depict the moment it all falls away from Alina with eerily banal plausibility. One bright New York afternoon, she strolls into a hardware store, tying up her dog outside the entrance and idly browsing the aisles. In a minute, it seems, she goes from not really knowing what she’s looking for to not really knowing why she’s there at all, along with how she got there and where she’s supposed to go. Kirby’s body language subtly seizes and panics. Her hand goes to her chest, almost as if searching for the reassurance of a pulse, or to pinch herself out of a dream, but no dice. She keeps moving, to give the appearance of knowing herself while her memory catches up. As she saunters out of the store without collecting her dog, the mutt’s bewildered whine echoes our own gasping concern.
Still, if any place allows you time to stall while you’ve lost yourself, it’s New York City, where if nothing else, you can simply following the rhythm of the street until another plan forms. Shooting in saturated daytime ochres and fluorescent darkness, Leon and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz capture the city’s alluring, enveloping glare and movement with woozy tactility, while Nicholas Britell’s score blends sidewalk noise and clatter into its moody synthetic mass. For a while, every passing distraction from a screaming ambulance to a distant bouquet of fireworks loans Alina a vivid sense of place to counter her missing sense of self. And when she allows herself to be chatted up by huckstering teenager Simon (Simon Brickner) in, of all places, the Chelsea Papaya hotdog joint, she fleetingly acquires a sense of purpose and companionship in the void.
As a writer, it turns out, Alina has some aptitude for forging a character for herself on the fly. When a passing admirer of her work clues her into that aspect of her identity, she clings to it, seeking out her books in the library and reading with unfamiliar awe. Posing as herself, in a sense, she infiltrates Simon’s youthful circle, claiming to be researching a novel — whereupon “Italian Studies” (its oblique title taken from Alina’s short story collection) tilts into a realm of suspended, overlapped reality.
It’s unclear whether her confessional conversations with these teens are occurring in real time, dredged from the fog of memory or simply dreamed up in Alina’s fugue state. The mystery of her identity stretches and echoes across more than one timeline. Perhaps, as a serial inventor of lives and minds, she was toying with this kind of interior collapse well before the bottom swiftly dropped out of her world. Kirby plays Alina’s sporadic surges of self-recognition with the euphoric, body-quickening air of an artist suddenly striking inspirational gold after a period of going blank. Seductive and frustrating by design, Leon’s film never follows its own leads to the end — but by fashioning amnesia as another kind of writer’s block, it shows us the way.