“Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied Rome…”
September 1943. Fulvio, Cencio, Mario and Matilde live in suburban Rome, and they work for a man named Israel. They work for his circus: Fulvio is a particularly furry man, with superhuman force; Cencio is a light-skinned young man whose ability is to be an insect whisperer; Mario is short, kind and almost childlike, and he can attract metal objects thanks to his magnetism; Matilde is a fragile and vulnerable teenager who can’t afford to be touched by anyone, due to her electrocution power. Their show is magical, and Israel acts like a father to them: he cares for them and protects them from danger. Everything changes when Nazis get to Rome, forcing them to move out. Israel’s sudden disappearance further complicates things: what can they do? Where can they go? Some members of the group think it would be a good idea to join the other circus in town, run by Nazi officer Franz, a six-fingered man who, using ether, can see into the future. Franz knows that Germany is bound to lose the war, and to his officer brother’s contrary opinion, has a plan that can revert the destinies of an entire continent.
Gabriele Mainetti stunned the world of Italian cinema in 2015 with his Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot (They Call Me Jeeg), the story of a misanthrope who uses the superpowers gained after falling in the Tiber River to fight a crazy gangster called The Gypsy, played in that movie by rising star Luca Marinelli. Six years later, after a production of almost a year, and three postponements in a year due to the COVID pandemic, Mainetti is back with Freaks Out, playing in Competition at the 78th Venice Film Festival.
I’ll just start with an undeniable statement: there has never been a film like this in modern Italian cinema. It’s not the country’s greatest movie, but it marks a watershed, in a way: the level and size of its production is unique in Italy’s recent cinematic landscape, made up of lowbrow and middlebrow comedies and auteur films. The story of four freaks taking on the German army that occupies Rome during the Resistance is indeed irresistible: paying homages to Fellini and his idea of life as a circus, tributing Italy’s western tradition, from Leone to Corbucci, to Quentin Tarantino’s basterds and Spielberg’s magic filmmaking, Mainetti conjures up a spectacle that can be both overwhelming and overstimulating as it can be entertaining and sophisticated. It’s a pastiche that always dares and never pulls back: musical numbers that go from Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall of The Mountain King to Radiohead’s Creep and Guns ’n Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” played at a piano, with exhilarating effects; scenes with sudden bursts of violence and scenes with explicit sexual content; spectacular action set pieces and ensemble sequences with little to no visual effects. In this regard, Freaks Out finds a striking balance of tones, a mixture of genres and atmospheres. It’s a film that sides with its outcasts, unlikely heroes for a day, celebrating the collective effort of the Italian Resistance: it wasn’t just the man on the mountains and the hills, armed with rifles, that saved the country, it also was the commitment of the common person that contributed to that victory, the courage of a teenager or the bravery of a man not taller than 5’.
Freaks Out is a movie that wears its ambition on its sleeve, though sometimes it is outmatched by it. The big climax near the ending is as spectacular as it is messy, with camera and editing frantically looking to hold the sequence together without fully succeeding. Also, not all the script choices add up, trying to bulk up a plot that might seem a bit thin to sustain a 140-minutes movie. However, its characters are easy to root for: we can identify with them, with their search for a place in a hostile world, being on and at their side during their voyage of discovery of themselves and their powers. Aurora Giovinazzo is outstanding as Matilde, a girl traumatized by a power that is more like a curse, imposing a physical distance from everyone else that we all feel too real in our own reality. She and her companions find an enemy from their own brethren in Franz, played with frantic energy by a scene-stealing Franz Rogowski, who stands clear of a cartoon villain by that one step that makes Franz an immensely enjoyable character.
Flawed as only ambitious movies can be (and who cares about perfection anyway?), Freaks Out figures a major shift in Italian cinema, and though it will have its naysayers, it gives its viewers an electrifying (no pun intended), entertaining and spectacular ride.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.
Photo courtesy of 01distribution