An old commercial used to claim, "If you want to attract someone's attention, whisper." The indie drama Ciao seems to heed that advice in its quiet, compelling introduction. The audience reads a series of e-mail messages on a black screen interspersed between simple, enigmatic shots of one man leaving his apartment and another man going through his effects. We soon identify the two correspondents. Andrea (Alessandro Calza), an Italian graphic designer, plans to visit his chat room pal Mark in Dallas, Texas. Jeff (Adam Neal Smith), a financial planner, informs Andrea that Mark recently died in a car accident.
With no spoken dialogue, Ciao's early moments draw us in. As we watch Jeff go about his routine, we reflect on how unexpected tragedy can lend gravity to the seemingly mundane activities of the survivors. Then, at about the nine-minute mark, the characters finally start talking out loud to each other, and Ciao becomes a lot less interesting.
Malaysian-born director/co-writer Yen Tan presents Ciao as an unadorned character study of Andrea and Jeff's brief encounter one weekend. You can appreciate the motivations behind Tan's minimal approach, which seems influenced by the casual style of French director Eric Rohmer. He clearly wants to strip away the contrivances of genre plotting and big-screen emoting in favor of long conversations in which his actors talk like ordinary people. It seems almost radical for a film about two gay men to hinge on a death that doesn't involve AIDS-related illness.
Unfortunately, Smith and Calza tamp down their performances so much, their deliveries simply come across flat and artificial. Occasionally, their conversation attains some truthful moments, such as when they share their coming-out experiences or the last words they said to Mark. There's even a brief flash of humor when they play a vintage Mortal Kombat-style video game.
Ciao suffers from long stretches of outright banality that resemble being stuck on an awkward first date or at a boring dinner party. The film also features long, silent montages of the characters, and there's just not enough going on with them to really engage us. You wish that the film would take the tediousness as a given and skip ahead to the more heartfelt exchanges. For all of the filmmaker's good intentions, Ciao's attempts as naturalism ultimately don't feel very natural.