Freaks Out had its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2022
Italy, 1943 – the travelling Half Penny Circus brings thrills and joys to its audience, momentarily distracting children from their day-to-day troubles. Albino ‘Insect Boy’ Cencio (Pietro Castellitto) controls invertebrates with his mind like the heroine of Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), clownish ‘Human Magnet’ Mario (Giancarlo Martini) can manipulate metal like Marvel’s Magneto, ‘Wolf Man’ Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) has ferocious strength to match his bestial appearance, like X-Men’s Beast, and teenaged ‘Electric Girl’ Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) can make lightbulbs illuminate with just a touch, among other, more dangerous gifts (or curses, as she sees them) that align her with Hellboy‘s Liz Sherman. At the head of this family of circus freaks – whose powers are not just smoke and mirrors – is ringleader and father figure Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi), who has taken in this troupe of outcasts and looks after them like his own children. Yet even this master illusionist cannot keep war’s horrors at bay, as becomes clear when the circus tent – and part of the audience with it – is destroyed mid-performance by an aerial bombing, and when Israel, whose very name marks his Jewishness as clearly as a yellow star, is made to disappear by forces that have nothing to do with a magic show. Accordingly Freaks Out, the second feature from writer director Gabriele Mainetti (They Call Me Jeeg Robot, 2015), is a fantasy occasionally exploded by reality.
Now leaderless, the four split up. Unable to believe, as the others do, that their mentor has absconded with their money, Matilde searches for any trace of Israel, and falls in with the ‘Crippled Devils’, a band of Nazi-hunting Italian partisans, while refusing to use her own powers for the harm of others. Meanwhile Fulvio, Cencio and Mario head off to join the famous Nazi Berlinzirkus, not realising that its leader, the twelve-fingered clairvoyant pianist Franz (Franz Rogowski), is ruthlessly recruiting an army of mutants for his own sinister ends, and foresees a future where the four will come back together to stop Hitler’s otherwise inevitable end. And so these oddly empowered characters, whose abilities and occasional entanglements with Nazism recall both X-Men and Hellboy, and who are expressly compared to the quartets from both The Wizard of Oz and the Fantastic Four (the latter an anachronism made possible by Franz’s insights into future culture), now pursue a destiny that sends them hurtling towards the Third Reich’s greatest crime.
Franz is gifted with visions that enable him accurately to sketch the moon landing, a triumph in the ring from Muhammad Ali, and a smart phone, and to plagiarise the tune of Radiohead’s Creep (1992) for his own musical repertoire. Yet it is Franz’s recurring vision of a less distant future – a train at a depot, four shadowy figures emerging, a suicide – that will preoccupy his thoughts and motivate his actions, even if he might just, Oedipus-like, be racing towards the very fate that he hopes to avoid. That train which he has seen is in fact transporting Israel and other Jews to a place from which we know that there can be little hope of return – and while Mainetti has the good sense and taste not to depict the Death Camps, he does reference them obliquely by filling his film with toxic gas, ovens and incinerators, and climaxing with a table-turning holocaust.
Here, mutants are mistaken for, or even falsely claim to be, Jews, even as they are similarly marginalised and othered, stigmatised and brutalised, rounded up and cruelly discarded, all in the service of a hatefully monstrous ideology – and so these freaks, in their pursuit of Israel, travel a parallel track to the very real victims of Nazism, while also offering a Shoah-reversing fantasy of liberation and revenge, like a superheroic spin on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). For in empowering the powerless with (entirely fictive) abilities, and in testing the acceptable limits of violence against the violent, Freaks Out dramatises and allegorises the difficulties in resisting fascism without becoming fascist yourself, and so proves no less relevant to our own age of the smartphone than to the period of the Second World War.
Strap: Gabriele Mainetti’s real-World (War II) fantasy pits an ensemble of superheroic circus mutants against the Nazis’ final solution
© Anton Bitel