I definitely do not have a bias against foreign cinema, but it does indeed take the right mood (and perfect meeting of acting and story!) to keep my attention. Freaks Out impressed me around every turn. Initially intimidated by its over two-hour runtime, the film immediately pulled me in with its depiction of an eye-popping, visually stimulating carnival act. Welcome to the Half Penny Circus, where one would assume most of the film’s runtime would be spent. After the explosive opening sequence plunges us onto the fields of war, however, a peaceful carnival existence is furthest from the truth. Writer/director Gabriele Mainetti and co-writer Nicola Guaglianone have other things in mind—pressingly, a fantastical world filled with bizarre creatures, mysterious superpowers, and time-traveling Nazi hijinks. You had better strap in for the ride, because this one’s a doozy!
Our introduction to the world of the strange and unusual promises truly jaw-dropping feats, skirting along the real and the magical with a careful tightrope balancing act. One man specializes in creepy-crawlies. Fireflies that he seems to control jump out at the audience, and a scorpion climbs out of his mouth and down his shirt with ease. Another act features a wolf-man howling, covered in hair, who breaks out of a cage. The grand finale is a cute woman bubbling with light. The peaceful awe of this opener is quickly stifled by the arrival of bombs (and people!) openly exploding in the middle of the performance. World War II has made its brutal and forceful entrance into Rome, taking no prisoners.
In the wake of this awful attack, life as the carnival crew knows it is completely over. The plan becomes finding a way for the Circus’ main attractions—Matilde (Aurora Gionvinazzo), Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria), and Mario (Giancarlo Martini)—to book it, and head to America. Once they arrive in America without a circus, however, what will their plan be? Even their tents have unceremoniously gone up in flames. Hot on their heels is a crazy and despicable German named Franz, who claims to have a window into the future. We quickly see that he is genuine, as he performs piano versions of popular modern hits like Radiohead’s “Creep;” his working space is adorned with drawings of iPhones and game system controllers. The injection of modernity into the narrative caught me by surprise, but fits the movie like a glove. Franz (Franz Rogowski) desires to track down those with powers, and retrieve them as a “gift to Hitler.”
Franz’s existence at “Zircus Berlin” is almost the polar opposite of the Half Penny Circus. The entryway looks identical to the one in American Horror Story: Freak Show, but with Hitler’s giant outstretched mouth in place of a devil. The Nazis are by no means sugar-coated in this depiction, frequently to a level that almost makes the viewer uncomfortable. However, I expressly think that is the point. By portraying how ruthless the Nazis were towards those they did not understand, there is an underlying message of not letting history repeat itself once more. Attempted rape and symbology drive the point home further, along with another sequence that I am almost positive was meant to be an insinuated gas chamber. Freaks Out constantly carries a conversation with itself, condemning its atrocities while trying to twist them into entertainment. For the most part, it remains grossly successful in this regard.
Magical realism is the name of the game here, and becomes the bread and butter of Freaks Out. It takes a historical setting and injects it with over-the-top action, intense violence, Nazi memorabilia and iconography, and anachronistic tunes out the wazoo. The movie is far more violent and sexually explicit than I had imagined even in my wildest dreams. Heavy on the war action and fun violence in the final act, Freaks Out never forgets that its heart lies in the freaks themselves. I loved spending time with this strange crew, and by the end, they become every bit as lovable as some of the finest superheroes. Razor-sharp, outrageously funny, and just the right amount of borderline offensive, Freaks Out will no doubt quickly amass a cult following.
Freaks Out screened at 2022’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.