Meeting to recall a missing friend

Alessandro Calza (left) and Adam Neal Smith in ''Ciao.'' Alessandro Calza (left) and Adam Neal Smith in ''Ciao.'' (m. proksell)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 19, 2008
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By its own very modest measures - a slip of a drama about two gay men grieving over a beloved and belated third, in lots of close-ups, with lots of dialogue - "Ciao" is a modest success. It's made on the smallest of budgets and features awkward if sincere performances, yet Yen Tan's film still manages to strike a series of plangent emotional truths about speaking one's heart and moving on.

The movie opens with a series of e-mails from Jeff (Adam Neal Smith) to Andrea (co-writer Alessandro Calza), the former in Dallas and the latter in Genova, Italy. Jeff has to break the unfortunate news that his best friend Mark (played by Chuck Blaum in flashback), whom Andrea was coming to visit after meeting online, has died in a car accident. Andrea decides to come anyway; what appears to be an accidental romance in the offing becomes something more tentative and moving.

Jeff and Mark were college roommates, and while we learn that both men came out around the same time, the boisterous Mark never reciprocated the shyer Jeff's longstanding crush. Openly gay, Jeff is still living in an emotional closet of his own design. Neat, balding, and unremarkable, he seems eerily unformed: a human crash test dummy.

Andrea - who turns out to be conveniently stunning - is sensitive and astute in the bargain, and over the two days of his visit, he draws Jeff into and beyond his sadness. "Ciao" has been rated R out of apparent homophobic panic on the part of the MPAA, but it's willfully mundane, taking place over endless meals and car trips. The chattily serious dialogue has been filmed in one rigorous close-up after another, and when we get a night-time exterior shot of Dallas, you can feel the movie exhale in relief.

Jeff's Asian-American stepsister (Ethel Lung) briefly shows up to pepper Andrea with questions and raise the film's pulse, but this is essentially a two-hander, one that moves toward emotional rather than sexual closure. The grace notes in "Ciao" are obvious but gratifyingly small: a ride on a Vespa, an ancient arcade game, a home-cooked meal. The catharses are similarly life-size.

In the bargain, "Ciao" is that rarity, a quiet but honest slice of queer culture in red-state America. Among the movie's droller observations is that gay country-and-western music remains a woefully underexplored market niche. And, no, "A Boy Named Sue" doesn't count.

CIAO Directed by: Yen Tan

Written by: Tan and Alessandro Calza

Starring: Adam Neal Smith, Calza, Ethel Lung, Chuck Blaum

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: R (language, including sexual references)

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