In the opening moments of Ciao we watch a husky Texan climb into an SUV on a serenely lonely street corner. It’s a near-immaculate shot—symmetrically organized with earth-toned townhouse walls quartering the screen, man and vehicle delicately blurred in the distance—that you imagine a team of technicians painstakingly calibrating with eraser-streaked storyboards and hours of coffee-fueled color correction. The overwhelming orderliness of the image, however, becomes a placid harbinger of doom: What character—what audience?—could survive such punctilious cinematography?
We learn seconds later that the driver, Mark, is killed in a car accident, bequeathing to best friend Jeff (Adam Neal Smith) an unread inbox of loose ends. These include a visiting Italian cyber-lover named Andrea (Alessandro Calza), whom Mark would have been meeting in person for the first time, and Jeff’s unrequited, life-long desire for his departed companion. The depth of the latter crystallizes steadily throughout a weekend of Kubler-Ross-inspired moments shared by Jeff and Andrea in cordial memoriam, building to an inevitable climax of confession and solace. These male leads laudably manage to keep the plot from wallowing in a generic cesspool of trite sentimentality, but the tension between style and substance apparent even in the first scene ultimately proves terminal: the filmmakers’ zeal to poeticize the messiness of life smoothes Ciao into a dull, picturesque chamber piece.
The joys of the film lie mostly in observing the two primary actors resist the urge to exaggerate their characters’ grief. Both Smith and Calza approach the leaden material with a highly likable humility. Their shared reluctance toward one another, and the emotional truths they suspect each other of hiding, is believably rendered in pockets of careful silence, half-hearted laughter and nimble euphemisms; they manifest the awkwardness one would expect of a relationship predicated on death and subconscious jealousy. At nearly every dramatic turn, however, the ever-static camera undercuts these poignantly understated performances with the egotism of a futon ad photographer who fancies Ozu. The scenes are insufferably framed with shadows or doorways or pieces of random furniture blocking a geometric slice; it all has the superficiality of an anal-retentive arrangement. Worse, the autumnal yellows and milky avocado greens of the various apartments and garments form a nauseatingly yuppy color scheme. Jeff and Andrea sound—and more importantly, feel—quite real as they painfully excavate their feelings for Mark, and each other; they just look like they belong in a Pottery Barn catalog.