“Less is more” — it’s one of those trusty idioms employed by critics of every medium. Think Kanye West and his overproduced single, “Love Lockdown”; think Chuck Palahniuk and his overwrought themes; think M. Night Shyamalan and his plot twists; think Sienna Miller and her performance in Factory Girl... you get the picture. What’s often intriguing about art (and especially film) is what goes unsaid.
But perhaps too much goes unsaid in Ciao, a sedate film directed and co-written by Yen Tan, which tracks the relationship of two men brought together by the death of another. When Mark (Charles W. Blaum) is killed in a car accident, his best friend and roommate, Jeff (Adam Neal Smith), takes it upon himself to go through the deceased’s email, attending to his unanswered messages. As a result, Jeff strikes up a back-and-forth with Mark’s Italian internet flame, Andrea (co-writer Alessandro Calza), whose trip to the U.S. is just days away. Their correspondence unfolds on-screen in type, interspersed with long shots of Jeff solemnly attending to his household chores to an accompaniment of schmaltzy piano. Condolences and apologies are exchanged between the two, and Jeff tells Andrea not to cancel his plans to visit their home in Dallas.
Andrea’s two-day stay is a brief study in grief and sensuality, as we watch the pair fumble over conversation in Jeff’s home. (Well, perhaps some of that sensuality is an inadvertent product of Andrea’s smoldering Italian glances.) But most of the interaction between the two feels forced, as it naturally would for any individuals meeting under such circumstances — Jeff knew nothing of Andrea before Mark’s death. And now he must piece together the missing fragments of Mark’s life through a stranger so foreign to him, yet so central to his best friend’s recent existence. It’s a grueling, isolated task, filled with mixed sexual undertones and muddled dialogue.
There’s something overly literal about how the two actors speak, like they’re enunciating too well or thinking too hard about the natural pauses in their lines. As a narrative device, the tenuous tête-Ã -tête provides opportunity to learn more about Mark without maudlin techniques like bleary flashbacks. But without some sort of break in the twosome’s stagnant discourse, the audience is made to feel as uncomfortable and awkward as the characters themselves. Granted, Andrea and Jeff eventually forge a bond, like many marred by the same tragedy would. Although the ride there is long and bumpy, they come to find a cathartic release in each other that opposes stereotypical melodrama.
The aesthetic elements of Ciao are doled out sparingly as well. Everlasting shots with dim lighting and under-saturated colors create a setting that seems to be mourning with its own characters. But the style is so self-indulgent it borders on contrivance. It’s showy minimalism, the kind that jumps out at you and cries, “Art!” At times, Tan actually succeeds in drawing the real artistry and solemnity out of the inflated concepts of Artistry and Solemnity; scenes that take place outside Jeff’s home — a cityscape of Dallas, a reflective outing to a colorful cowboy bar — speak to fine-tuned cinematographic instincts. But for most of the film, the visual composition closely resembles its claustrophobic narrative. In the end, both are too overtly concerned with their own Subtlety.