Ciao Directed by: Yen Tan Cast: Adam Neal Smith, Alessandro Calza, Ethel Lung, Charles W. Blaum Running Time: 1 hour 30 min Rating: R
Plot: Jeff (Adam Neal Smith) ties up the loose ends after Mark (Charles W. Blaum) dies in a car accident. When Andrea (Alessandro Calza) emails Mark to finalize plans for a visit, Jeff tells him Mark is dead. Then he invites him to visit anyway. The two men bond over the loss of Mark, a man they knew in very different ways.
Who’s It For? Anyone who doesn't mind films about loss. The main characters are gay, so this is a "gay" film in the way that Sex in the City is a woman's movie. You don't have to be gay to enjoy it, but if you aren't willing to open yourself you won't.
Expectations: I hadn't heard of this film until I was asked to review it. I assumed it was about Italian gay dudes, based on the title and the photo on the publicity materials.
Adam Neal Smith as Jeff: You have to empathize with Jeff or the film really won't work. Unfortunately, I didn't. From the moment he opened his mouth, I rolled my eyes. He speaks in a weird, theatrical manner like he's performing in a badly written school play. At first I thought maybe the script was to blame, but no one else had the same effect on me. As Mark's best friend, Jeff's emotional growth is central to the film. But I had a really hard time believing in him or caring for him as a character. The only scenes where he felt real were when he was playing video games. As he plays, he seems to forget that he is acting and instead just is. Score: 3/10
Alessandro Calza as Andrea: An Italian Internet friend of Mark's, Andrea's arrival is the catalyst for the film. His relationship to Mark, which Jeff wasn't aware of, spurs Jeff to really explore how much he knew about Mark. Though initially awkward, the two men both want to use what each knows about Mark to piece together a semi-formed picture of who he was. Unlike Smith, Calza feels very natural as an Italian who hoped to make a friend, possibly a lover, and instead meets a bereaved man. Maybe he seems genuine because he is an Italian and a stranger in a strange land. Maybe it's because he co-wrote the script. Either way, this is a good debut. Score: 6/10
Ethel Lung as Lauren: Lauren gets saddled with the job of doling out the exposition. Luckily, she's adorable so we don't mind. As Jeff's step-sister, Lung plays the thankless best friend role but adds more charm than it deserves. Score: 6/10
Talking: The dialogue isn't brilliant. Most of the best moments occur when people aren't talking. There isn't anything odiously bad, it's just not the most natural language ever. Score: 5/10
Sights: The film actually looks nice, especially when Jeff's driving around and we see the Dallas skyline at night. It's a pretty cool skyline that never seems to get utilized in films. I usually don't mention DPs, but Michael Victor Roy deserves a shout out, he did some good work with limited resources. Plus he makes all the actors look great. Score: 7/10
Sounds: Much of the film has no music under it, only ambient sound. I'm assuming it's meant to add to the somberness of the film, but it feels unreal. It's the same feeling I get during a soap opera. You may not notice a lot of these noises when they're there, but the absence of sound effects can be hugely disconcerting. Score: 3/10
Best Scene: Jeff takes Andrea to Mark's house and they find a video game in his garage (it's some sort of two-player fighting game, though I couldn't tell which). Jeff agrees to go against Andrea, and the scene that occurs is really fun and spontaneous. I know it's a film about death, but it wouldn't have hurt to have a few more scenes like that.
Ending: Andrea returns to Italy, and all is right with the world. The last scene is what it should be and bookends the film nicely.
Questions: Why does Smith play the lead? Do Jeff and Andrea stay in touch? What video game were they playing?
Rewatchability: I'm not really interested in seeing it again. Death is a hard sell at the best of times, and this one didn't have enough going for it to make the emotional drain of watching this worth it.
Losing a loved one is a huge subject, and I have to respect any film that tackles it without being cloying. The angle that Ciao approaches death from works. But Smith does not work as the lead character. When I can't get on board with the lead, it's a bad sign. I'm not saying you have to love the star of a movie, Tony Soprano was an awful guy but I still liked The Sopranos. I just need to believe that a character is who he says he is ... and I couldn't. Most of what Jeff said felt false.
This film has some good stuff, like the cinematography, but it isn't enough to really work. Besides Smith, the script just isn't strong enough. The story doesn't have the heft it needs. But I won't give up on these guys, I could see them doing some good work in the future. Yen Tan should try to film something he hasn't written. I'd like to see what he could do with a tighter, fun script.
Final Score: 4/10