Venice 2021 review: Freaks Out (Gabriele Mainetti)

“Mainetti clearly can handle material of this magnitude, but while the spectacle is continuously entertaining and the actors are a joy to watch, a little bit of ‘less is more’ would have helped Freaks Out a great deal.”

With one of the most costly Italian productions ever Gabriele Mainetti secured himself a competition slot, dropping the spandex, but otherwise making a Hollywood-worthy superhero film. At some point the central characters possessing superpowers are even called the Fantastic Four, a clear nod to the Marvel franchise and an example of Mainetti laying it on thick. And while Freaks Out certainly aims for and even reaches the level of that franchise, the film is quite excessive in what it puts on screen. That includes its biggest star Franz Rogowski, who in all fairness does play a circus artist, but he really plays it up to the rafters. Freaks Out is an incredibly entertaining film, but it overstays its welcome in an extremely drawn-out final shootout that is confusing and to some extent tasteless. The film is saved, however, by the cast of actors at the heart of it, playing the ‘freaks’ the title refers to, and in particular the disarming Aurora Giovinazzo as the true protagonist. Freaks Out hits on common themes like diversity and coming to terms with one’s nature as an outsider, but doesn’t break new ground when it comes to storytelling, even if the film is notably darker than most MCU or DC Comics flicks. It is continuously engaging though, even if the film could easily lose half an hour and not be the worse for it.

Rome, 1943. Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) runs a small circus, with four ‘freaks’ as the main attraction: Cencio (Pietro Castellitto, in striking platinum blonde wig) has the ability to control insects (except for bees, after a childhood trauma); Mario (Giancarlo Martini), a dwarf who is magnetic and also well-endowed; Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria), a wolf-man who is incredibly strong; and Matilde (Giovinazzo), an electrically charged girl with a heart of gold. As the protracted but wonderful opening scene makes clear, the war is coming uncomfortably close, and with his Jewish identity increasingly becoming a danger Israel makes plans to go to America, imploring his troupe to follow him. When Israel mysteriously disappears while securing papers for the transfer, the remaining four need to decide what to do: join a German circus led by the infamous Franz (Franz Rogowski), or go search for Israel. Matilde decides on the quest, while the others sell their souls and join Franz’s Zirkus Berlin. Franz is a peculiar character with a hidden agenda though: he is looking for four individuals with special powers that he has seen in one of his ether-infused visions in which he can actually see the future, which includes iPhones and Rubik’s Cubes (the Swastika-adorned version he plays with, as well as other Nazi paraphernalia, is hilarious and crass at the same time). He believes that with these four he can alter the Third Reich’s bleak future that he has seen in his dreams. Will Cencio, Mario, and Fulvio survive the plans of this madman, and will their paths eventually cross that of Matilde again? She is on an adventure of her own, hooking up with a resistance group, but will she ever find her father figure Israel?

Given the type of film Freaks Out is, asking these questions is almost the same as answering them. In terms of plotting the film has very few surprises in store, although the way it handles the nemesis of the gang of four at the heart of the film is certainly somewhat original. A man with a sizeable inferiority complex courtesy of his high-ranking brother, Franz is a ‘freak’ himself, born with six fingers on each hand. This makes him an entrancing pianist (watching him playing a particularly gaudy version of Radiohead’s Creep, likely heard in one of his dreams, in a flashy cape adorned with Nazi symbols is… quite something), but also an outsider of sorts. Rogowski chews up the scenery, circus tent and all, as if his life depends on it. He is just one example of the excess that Mainetti throws at the screen, with over-the-top situations culminating in a closing scene that is at least half an hour long and includes our superheroes, Nazis, a tank, a resistance army, and a train full of Jews on transport. And yes, that last part is tacky, but by this point in the film Mainetti has already shown himself to be not exactly a paragon of tasteful art. At times Freaks Out, in essence a fairy tale set in World War II and shot with an appropriate fantasy aesthetic, is extraordinarily violent in a way you would only expect of, say, a Tarantino film. It also features a sex scene between wolf-man Fulvio and a wolf-woman (Astrid Meloni) that would, had they not been so furry, have certainly upped the rating.

Freaks Out can be an exhausting watch, and it does feel like Mainetti throws everything at the screen just to see what sticks. To be fair, a lot of it does. The banter among the three performers that stay together is a riot, with Castellitto’s comedic timing put to good use and Martini’s more physical humor delightful in its playfulness. Giovinazzo’s part requires her to do all the dramatic lifting, getting the story’s most fully realized arc, but the young actress in her first truly big role shows she can carry a film. The film’s technical aspects, in particular its production design, are all top notch and could rival any Hollywood production. It’s just that it is all a bit much, to the point where in the film’s climax even the theater itself became part of the spectacle (a feat that is unlikely to be repeated in regular theaters, and given how jolting it was that may be for the best). Mainetti clearly can handle material of this magnitude, but while the spectacle is continuously entertaining and the actors are a joy to watch, a little bit of ‘less is more’ would have helped Freaks Out a great deal.