Unexpected grief, unexpected joy

Unexpected grief, unexpected joy

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“Ciao” is an affecting, low-key romantic drama about two gay men who meet after the death of someone they both loved. The film, which opens today at Ritz theaters, concerns Jeff (Adam Neal Smith), a single financial adviser in Dallas. His best friend Mark was about to meet Andrea (Alessandro Calza), an Italian guy he met over the Internet. However, Mark is killed in a car accident. When Jeff invites Andrea to visit Dallas anyway, the strangers slowly get to know one another through their discussion about the deceased.

“Ciao” is essentially a two-hander, but this poignant romance, co-written by Calza and director Yen Tan, never feels static. The film creates an intimate mood that allows viewers to be part of the men bonding. If the film is limited by its micro-budget, the emotional pull of the drama still has a tremendous impact on the viewer.

On the phone from his home in Genoa, Italy, Calza spoke about “Ciao” and how he and Tan collaborated on the film.

“I saw Yen’s film ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I really loved it. It had a sense of style and pace and the photography of an Asian movie. I’m a big fan of Ozu. He was coming from that kind of experience. I wrote him a compliment about ‘Happy Birthday,’ and he wrote me back. We talked about music, cinema, art, and kept on talking for about two years.”

Calza’s bond with Tan prompted the director to “bounce” the idea for “Ciao” off his new friend. The story that served as Tan’s inspiration, the actor explained, dealt with a heterosexual woman who was supposed to meet a guy she was chatting with, but he had an accident. The woman went to see where her friend was living, and eventually moved there. Calza introduced the idea of a gay Internet hookup based on his experience with a guy in Connecticut he met online.

The film’s two lead characters mostly interact through their conversations and body language, which become more intimate as they get to know one another — a far contrast to the polite e-mail exchanges between Jeff and Andrea that open the film.

Calza explained: “We wanted to keep the idea of the language barrier as something endemic to two people from different countries coming together to talk. I reworked my lines so they could be realistic. We wanted Andrea to use a language that was simplified English, but not ‘backward’ or distracting. We didn’t want Andrea to take over and make the film too Italian. We didn’t want his energy to electrify the plot.”

Given the sparse qualities of “Ciao” — nearly 10 minutes pass before the first line of dialogue is spoken — the chatty Calza had some difficulties adjusting to his character.

“Yen and I were trying to work the character [to] my sensibility. I speak more quickly, and gesticulate. Andrea is more [reserved]. When actors play a character completely different from them, they use their techniques. When you play someone close but not exactly who you are, you sometimes cross the line [between fiction and reality].”

Calza shares some, but not all, of his character’s qualities. “I think Andrea is a very diluted version of me,” he said. The actor failed at learning line dancing from an instructional video, but unlike Andrea, he quite likes country music. “I got into it from watching ‘Urban Cowboy,’” he confessed.

Similarly, Calza is not superstitious, but a story recounted in the film about finding success by placing a cat whisker on a computer comes from his life. “You have to be careful what you tell Yen. It will end up in the script,” the actor joked.

Furthermore, Calza insisted that while he, like Andrea, tries to be spiritual and believes in coincidence, he is also very spontaneous. The attitude Andrea has in the film is much more Tan’s personality. “I think when I watch my character, sometimes I see Yen in what I am doing or saying. I see my face, my body, but it’s Yen’s attitudes.”

Tan’s control over the content of the film also extended to the love scenes, or lack thereof — “Ciao” is a gratifyingly chaste romance. Of course, some viewers will probably want Jeff and Andrea to shut up and have sex, and Calza said that had he scripted the film alone, he would have included a sex scene. The actor also revealed that while he finds actor Smith, who plays his romantic partner in the film, attractive, Charles W. Blaum, who plays Mark, is more his type.

Yet audiences will likely appreciate the restraint and intelligence of this touching film. (“Ciao” won the Feature Jury Prize at last summer’s Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.) According to Calza, the film particularly resonates with 30-50-year-old viewers, likely because it’s not about a gay teen in high school trying to hook up with the straight jock. In fact, Calza said, audiences responded more to the theme of loss than the Internet hookup.

Now, as new audiences get a chance to discover “Ciao,” they too will find themselves seduced by the quiet sophistication of this elegant, independent queer drama.

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