Film: "Ciao" from Dec 12 at Landmark Lumiere

[Photo courtesy Regent Releasing; film website and trailer here.]

A man named Mark dies suddenly, leaving just one close survivor: Jeff, a former lover. When Jeff accesses Mark’s email account, he discovers that Mark has been corresponding with an Italian man whom he had met online, Andrea. He was about to visit Mark in Dallas for the first time, just for a weekend (in case they didn’t get along after all). After a brief hesitation, Jeff invites Andrea to visit anyway and stay with him.

Andrea takes up the invitation, and thus begins a very quiet drama. When Andrea does arrive, the two begin a conversation — about themselves and their lives, and their relationships with Mark and with one another — that stretches over the weekend, until it’s time for Andrea to go.

That’s it, but it’s enough, and the rest of the film, essentially, is the record of that long conversation.

Considering how heavily Ciao relies upon dialogue for its effect, it’s unfortunate that the writing is often so inexcusably lame, marred by exactly the kind of rigid, superfluous exposition and unrevealing chit-chat that are a feature of student work. “Here’s the box of Mark’s stuff that you asked for,” Jeff says to the parents at one point, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious what he was up to, and exchanges such as “How are you? — Fine. You?” seem to open every conversation. The two lead actors, who give remarkable performances, often seem to be struggling against these banal moments. However, these moments are fleeting enough, and the long conversation never departs much from the central subject, this absence in both their lives.

Whatever weaknesses the dialogue has, they are overbalanced by the incredible photography and shot design throughout. From the first moments I was struck by the beautiful composition and lighting of each shot; everything is put together with such a fine sense of composition and lighting that almost every scene had an iconic quality. Whereas the dialogue explores the backstory, the story unfolding before us — a story about the growing closeness between these two men — is told through these shots. At first we see each man alone, each in his own space, then as they grow closer, more and more shots include both of them. In the end, of course, each is left in solitude, with his individual loss. The closing sequence is especially brilliant, in that it manages to summarize Jeff’s feelings about his lost lover without being maudlin in the least.

Ultimately, the film develops into a moving exploration of — among many other themes — the experience of friendship, love and loss.

Ciao plays from December 12 at Landmark’s Lumiere Theatre and Shattuck Cinemas.

8 Comments so far

  1. mikedoyle on December 12th, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    Oh my God, please don’t see this film. I just sat through a screening of it tonight on a judging panel for the 27th Annual Reeling Chicago LGBT Film Festival. It had to be one of the worst movies I have ever sat through and I couldn’t find one other judge who even liked it. We all pretty much all agreed it had porn-movie acting, atrocious editing (scads and scads of obnoxiously long-held shots as if to signify the emotional meaning that the flat acting sucked completely out of the film), and a boring story that was predictable from beginning to end.

    I know you may think I’m kidding or have an axe to grind with this film, but neither is the case. We all thought it had the potential to be so much more. However, one of us fell asleep during it, one of use had to keep leaving the screening room, one of us exclaimed "thank God it’s over," and I tried to meditate for 20 minutes in the middle of it because I didn’t want to be unfair and get up and go home. But I was very close through almost the entire movie.

    Beautiful cinematography cannot make up for a lack of an actual movie. Neither, by that way, can the five-minute long series of we’re reading it as they’re typing it emails that start the movie in lieu of actual scenes and dialogue. If that total copout were this movie’s only flaw it might be watchable.

    My advice to anyone willing to see this thing bring a magazine and an unobtrusive booklight, an iPod, or at the very least a good sense of humor. And don’t say you weren’t warned when it’s done with you.

  2. mikedoyle on December 12th, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

    Or more succinctly, in the words of the NY Times review:

    "…like a pornographic quickie with a torturously ambitious visual style…But holding a shot until the cows come home, are milked dry and put out to pasture once again does not an art movie make."

  3. Jeremy Hatch (jhatch) on December 12th, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    Interesting comments! I certainly don’t think you need to have an axe to grind to criticize this film sharply: I also found it seriously problematic, and it’s no masterpiece. But just for the record, I didn’t think the pacing was too slow, and I thought the two leads were much better actors than the script. (The other actors in the film were various degrees of atrocious.) Characterizing the work of the leads in this as ‘porn movie acting’ is a tad harsh, to say the least. The cinematography was the strongest aspect of this film, so I wanted to highlight that. Is that all a film requires? No. But in my opinion, it deserves slightly more generosity than you or Ms. Darghis at the NYT seem willing to give it.

  4. mikedoyle on December 13th, 2008 @ 1:23 am

    Yes, calling the acting porn movie-esque is harsh. It’s also the impression I had from the first moment of dialogue to the last (and I wasn’t the only one in the screening room to feel that way). Primarily for me, this was because of the wooden delivery of lead Adam Neal Smith whose acting I found oddly affected and unbelievable, as if he were reading his lines off a card. But I found the other actors similarly wooden to varying degrees.

    As a judge–really as a filmgoer in general–why should I feel any need to be generous? The point of film is to entertain, engage, or spark the intellect in some way. If a film doesn’t achieve one of those ends, why should I feel any responsibility to get out and push?

    For the record, the first movie we judged prior to Ciao was better although not great. However, it left far more room for generosity, in terms of balancing the good with the bad and giving the film the benefit of the doubt. We all liked that film even for its significant faults. Ciao was self-indulgent in its unyielding attempt to be an art film.

    And that’s just boring.

  5. Jeremy Hatch (jhatch) on December 13th, 2008 @ 8:52 am

    Fair enough! Although instead of saying "harsh," perhaps I should have used the word "unjustified."

    But let me get to the big issue I’d like to clear up: I didn’t mean to imply that you, as a filmgoer and judge, have any obligation whatever to be more generous with films. I agree that’s an absurd contention, though people have made it. What I meant was a little more restricted: I found the film a touch better than pretentious, and therefore deserving a review that’s a touch less dismissive — one that has "slightly more generosity," in other words. Not so much a criticism of other reviews, as a defense of the viewpoint I had written mine from!

    Obviously we’re in agreement that the film is pretty bad, so you know what’s most interesting about this discussion to me, is the way our different viewing contexts influenced our judgments of this particular film. At a film festival where one sees and judges many films, and have a lot of people to discuss it with, it’s simply impossible to have patience with a marginal work like this. Whereas I screened it virtually alone at a press screening in the middle of the morning, and it was the only film I saw that day. I still found it bad, but I think that context made me more inclined to see the good in it.

    And of course our (professional and film-watching) backgrounds would influence that too. For example, I do a lot of art writing and spend a lot of time looking at art in galleries, so with films I tend to be dazzled and entertained by a sequence of great visuals alone. Also I’m not too up to speed with queer cinema (yet, anyway) and hence, not fully alert to the kinds of stereotypes and resonances that would otherwise ruin a film for me.

    Anyway — interesting discussion so far!

  6. cameronfields on December 16th, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    I saw the film this past weekend at the Landmark Lumiere, and found the characters endearing and the story, while slight, really touched me at the end. In the audience of about 30, around 20 stayed to hear the director speak. I’m not a mind-reader, so I don’t know what the audience was thinking, but I found the film to be quite good.

    Mike Doyle, it seems like you actually DO have an axe to grind with the movie… why else would you make such a sincere attempt to dissuade viewers from attending by piling on such a bitter response to an already tepid review?

    And even more important: Jeremy Hatch, why did you allow yourself to be goaded by Mr. Doyle into eventually bashing the film as well? Your initial review was fairly even-handed, but then your comments devolved into "Obviously we’re in agreement that the film is pretty bad…"

    Need help finding your backbone, Mr. Hatch?

    Thankfully, I did not read the comments on this blog before I went to see the film, but others will not be so lucky. In the future, if you choose to acknowledge comments on your blog, consider defending yourself and your views, rather than so graciously folding under pressure.

  7. Jeremy Hatch (jhatch) on December 16th, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    Cameron, let’s leave aside the question of my moral backbone or lack thereof for the moment, shall we? I wasn’t "goaded" into "bashing" the film. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s of giving backhanded praise, not of changing my viewpoint under pressure. As you point out, I indeed gave the film a "tepid" review, and my fourth paragraph consists mostly of harsh criticism. It seems pretty clear that only thing I saw to praise was the photography and the better stretches of acting. You might even say that I found it "pretty bad."

    However, I felt that Mr. Doyle’s remarks — his bashing of the film, if you will — were way over the top and required qualification. Perhaps I wasn’t the appropriate one to do that, but I thought it would be helpful to spell out my view in more detail: "pretty bad," yes; "bring an iPod and a magazine," clearly not. He didn’t seem like a troll, so I thought a response might make for interesting discussion.

    And it did, but alas, discussion does involve acknowledging common ground. I’m sorry that my explicit statement, in a comment, of what was only implicit in my review, looks like a craven change of heart to you. But I think I’ve explained myself plenty by now.

    You’re actually making an excellent point, though it’s not the one I think you intended: responding to comments on one’s own articles is often much more trouble than it’s worth and often leads to wasted time. I hate to give it up, because I’ve learned some fascinating things in these threads, but this exchange suggests that I should go back to my former practice of ignoring them, regardless how idiotic they may be.

    And — just so there’s no ambiguity here — by "idiotic" I’m referencing Mr. Doyle’s first comment above, not yours. You do raise a valid question about the whole discussion thus far, and I hope I’ve addressed it to your satisfaction.

    Best wishes to you.

  8. cameronfields on December 16th, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    Your candid response is indeed appreciated, Mr. Hatch. Have a good day.

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