Feature Narrative Reviews

L’Elefante nella stanza [Elephant in the Room] (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Kartik Singh

Writer: Kartik Singh

Cast: Floriano Canonaco, Wanda Iorno, Lorena Scintu, Eugenio Mannarino

Ironically for a romantic comedy, L’Elefante nella stanza (Elephant in the Room) can be very difficult to love. Not least because its unnecessarily mean name nags away at the back of your mind all the way through.

The story follows Gianni (Floriano Canonaco), an overweight, middle-aged man, as he tries to find love, while processing the deteriorating health of his mother. The elephant in the room has a double-meaning, because his mother is doing her best not to talk about her diagnosis – but the other side of the film’s name clearly relates to Gianni’s size – and it doesn’t fit with the wider tone of the film at all. While many of the conflicts in his tale correlate to his weight, no character ever refers to him as cruelly as the movie’s own title. If anything, the whole town of Amantea seems to be on his side – and it’s not difficult to see why.

Canonaco imbues his character with an irresistible charm. Every earnest conversation he has with a stray dog as he shares a snack with it, every moment he spends mournfully gazing out across the ocean as he contemplates his mother’s worsening condition, has something real in it – sweeping the audience along with a ramshackle plot we would probably not have engaged with otherwise. It seems a horrible disservice to play on the size of the character, or the actor, from the outside, as it were – neither giving him a right of reply, nor the chance to prove us wrong for scoffing at his physical appearance.

The rest of the cast have excellent chemistry with Canonaco, too. His endearingly crafty mother (Wanda Iorno) seems to have a wry twinkle in her eyes at every moment, steadily ensnaring the other players in a plan that will help him find happiness after her passing. Daniela (Lorena Scintu) – a single mother who is new to town – is one of those seemingly unaware she is being manoeuvred into place as part of this, or perhaps she simply doesn’t mind – something her easy-going, affable performance suggests as her friendship with Gianni blossoms. Whatever their relationship ends up as, seeing two people suffering from distinct kinds of loneliness find solace in each other is something deeply enjoyable.

All the charming performances in the world can’t make up for the many shortcomings of the writer-director Kartik Singh’s storytelling, though. Truly, this is a film of a million missed opportunities – with set-ups repeatedly constructed, only for pay-offs to be absent virtually every time. By the end, there is more loose thread than conjoined fabric on display.

One glaring open goal comes from Daniela becoming a tailor in the town. In a scene at the end, Gianni complains that the clothes she made him “don’t fit”. She has been helping him to try and eat healthily and exercise but there have been many moments when he has lapsed into his old ways, leaving her frustrated. Clearly making peace with this and appreciating him for who he is, she sympathetically tells him there is no “ideal size” – assuming that because he has not stuck to his diet he’s outgrown his suit. But this comes after an upbeat montage of exercise and positive lifestyle choices by a determined Gianni. Surely this was all to establish a pay-off where Daniela discovers, as she measures Gianni for new clothes, that she needs to make new clothes because he is actually losing weight? But there is no such resolution to the scene.

Earlier in the film, meanwhile Gianni has an almost fatal heart attack, and a doctor diagnoses him with a severe heart condition. After such a grave set of stakes were established, you might think this would factor in to the film again later: perhaps when, during the clichéd ‘mad rush’ sequence at the end, Gianni sprints up and down the town’s many hills in a bid to stop Daniela moving back to Rome? But no such thing happens, in which case we have to wonder why we had the heart-attack sub-plot at all. Simply to establish that the town’s doctor drives a converted coffee scooter? As funny as that was as a detail, it might have been excluded in place of some much-needed establishing shots.

And yes, that brings me to the film’s editing. Weirdly, for a feature which did not even make the sought-after 90-minute-mark, it feels like the L’Elefante team were told the film was too long, and placed under instruction to cut out literally everything but the actors’ dialogue. As such, as soon as one conversation between two characters ends, we are thrown headfirst into another – occasionally involving only one of the previous participants, leaving us wondering, ‘hang on, where’s Daniela/Gianni/Gianni’s mum gone?’

Considering the beauty of the Calabrian coast, and the cobbled streets of Amantea, where all the action was filmed, this seems like a crying shame. We could have been treated to some truly stunning views of the areas where each scene takes place – before situating the characters within that idyllic setting.

There is also something of a missed opportunity relating to the area’s food. Gianni’s main dietary problem relates to eating chocolate bars late at night – which is a little vanilla, considering Amantea is the home of the buccunotto (a spectacularly unhealthy pastry filled with chocolate, coffee and spices). We do briefly see him and Daniela partake of some gorgeous-looking pizza, and a distant shot of him eating some gelato later on, but more might have been done to foreground the culinary delights of the area, to help us see just how much temptation surrounds him and makes his weight-loss journey so difficult.   

The region’s cuisine and its stunning geography were two more gilt-edged opportunities for Kartik Singh and his team to help flesh out what is otherwise a rather run-of-the-mill story. Those details could have enhanced the unique aspects of the plot, and helped it stand apart from other romantic comedies. Unfortunately, these chances went begging – leaving this film disappointingly lightweight in its execution.

Every performance in L’Elefante nella stanza is worthy of praise, with the actors each managing to come across as a unique and well-rounded character who we want the best for. That means that in spite of some shaky and underdeveloped storytelling, audiences will still find this a pleasant viewing experience that they can easily empathise with. But it could have been so much more than that, with a little more patience, and attention to detail.

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