During a time when American independent cinema either grunts elliptically under moody skies or chatters banally cross-legged on the living room floor, the purposeful, probing dialogue in Yen Tan‘s “Ciao” feels like a throwback to an entirely different reality. When characters talk in “Ciao,” they aren’t being elusive or withholding for a gradual or sudden reveal, they’re honestly trying to make sense–and to help one another to make sense–of difficult circumstances and emotions. The filmmaker’s faith in dialogue as crucial to narrative and character development as well as to personal recovery and romance may at first seem Clinton-era quaint, but it’s really just plain effective. Nothing but cheap suspense is lost when information and honest feelings are exchanged in “Ciao,” and what’s gained is something more lovely, complicated, and true.
Starting from a perhaps too-clever conceit, “Ciao” gathers emotional steam as its characters transcend their diagrammed attachments. When his best friend dies in a car accident, Jeff (Adam Neal Smith) administers to his belongings, cancels his accounts, and responds to unanswered emails. A letter from an Italian man named Andrea talks of travel plans for visiting Mark in Dallas, to which Jeff responds with the bad news. Surprised that Mark had never told him about Andrea, and sleepless with grief over his friend’s death, Jeff suggests that Andrea (Alessandro Calza) keep his plans and visit Dallas anyway. When Andrea agrees, followed by a shot of the two men stealing glances while waiting side-by-side at the airport’s baggage claim, “Ciao” seems sure to plunge into soapy soft core.
But Yen Tan takes a much different tack, tracking a tentative connection forged through intense grief. Rather than a mere premise to get Jeff and Andrea to meet, Mark’s death and life remain their focus. Their friendship and affection develop as they help each other to remember and rediscover an absent friend, forming a triangle with thickening lines of connection.
Though a bit amateurish in its shot-making and performances, “Ciao”‘s clumsiness eventually supports its honest ambitions. Smith and Calza, while game and easy on the eyes, aren’t exactly polished, but their inexperience matches the film’s disarming earnestness. Challenged to shoot multiple extended one-on-one conversations, the director and DP Michael Victor Roy compose fixed, flat shots at decreasing distances from the characters, and tight reverse shots that retain an intervening shoulder. At the sink, across the dinner table, in the car, at a bar, on the couch–seen from the front, back and Persona-cribbed side–Jeff and Andrea are visually, spiritually coupled despite their still unrealized and somewhat confused attraction. No doubt that “Ciao” is a tease, but here sexual tension dovetails with emotional heft.
When Jeff and Andrea finally do share a pillow, the scene is both intensely charged and overwhelmingly tender. After two days of talking about Mark, visiting his grave, and sifting through his apartment, they move on to indirect evocations: making each other dinner and recounting their love lives–Mark-related and otherwise–sight-seeing in Dallas, and going to watch and giggle at country line dancers (Mark was a fan; they are not). Since Andrea had never met Mark, Jeff becomes a window onto the lover he never quite had, while Andrea lets Jeff see a carnal side of Mark always denied him. Jeff’s grief, wrapped up in love, loss, and unmet desire, finds a willing, cathartic embrace in Andrea, who in turn learns to mourn the soul mate he never even met. So when, in one long, fixed, white sheet-enveloped take, they come together, it’s one step closer to the intimacy that they’ve been reaching for throughout. “Ciao” proves that all screen kisses are not created equal; these carry the weight and passion of men trying to draw closer to each other and to the memory of someone they never got to hold tenderly as this.
I’ve not seen Yen Tan’s previous films (“Happy Birthday,” “Love Stories“), but “Ciao” seems the work of a young filmmaker emerging, discovering beauty and wisdom through story, honest conversation, and two grown men kissing, cradling, and crying each other to sleep.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]