No one can accuse Freaks Out of lacking shock value. This historical fantasy drama directed by Gabriele Mainetti indulges in every conceivable twist and corny antic to tell the story of four circus performers in Nazi-occupied Rome. Unfortunately, they don’t pay off, and instead end up turning this lengthy flick into a mostly gimmicky slog.
The film opens in 1943 and Matilde, Cencio, Fulvio and Mario, four circus performers, are putting on a routine show. First up is Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), a lanky platinum-blond boy who can control insects (except bees because they annoy him); then comes Mario (Giancarlo Martini), a stout man with magnetic abilities; then Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria), a burly, hairy man with extraordinary strength; and finally Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), a delicate beauty whose body conducts an electrical current. At the head of circus operations is Israel (Max Mazzotta), a Jewish magician.
Ambitious concept with a disappointing execution.
This enchanting opening sequence, with its mystical mood and desaturated palette, promises a brooding fantastical tale. Suddenly an explosion interrupts the show, and the circus tent falls to reveal a chaotic scene of gore and destruction. The Nazis have entered Rome and brought with them violence and bigotry, which the film has no problem showing. Bodies fly against a soundtrack of shrill screams and explosions. The family of performers scatter to find refuge.
Their only option is to escape, and Israel has a plan. If they each pay him 300 lire, he can procure transportation to help them leave Rome and find a new home. The crew is initially skeptical but acquiesce out of desperation and limited options. After all, they want to stick together. Their excitement, however, sours when Israel doesn’t return. The three men of the group, understandably perturbed, think that Israel has lied to them and run off to America alone. Matilde, whose innocence eventually cloys, refuses to believe that. Something must have happened, she says, and they need to find him.
The penniless performers head into the wild in search of their father figure. Running parallel to their story is that of Franz (Franz Rogowski), a Nazi pianist who can time-travel. Because of his special skill, he knows that the Nazis will lose the war and that Hitler will commit suicide. He believes the only way to prevent this is to find the four members of our ragtag crew and harness the power of their skills. When Franz is not playing 21st century songs, like Radiohead’s “Creep,” for his fellow Nazis, he’s traveling into the future searching for clues that will help him find the circus performers. No one believes Franz, and part of what drives his mission is a thirst for respect from his Nazi comrades.
At its heart, Freaks Out wants to be a weird, fun coming-of-age story, with Matilde, who eventually becomes separated from the group, at its center. Her decision to break away from her family when they choose to find another circus to join, rather than continue their search for Israel, sets up the narrative perfectly for a deeper character study. Instead, Matilde remains shallowly rendered, and her biggest obstacle (the inability to control her electric powers) quickly becomes tiring. There is simply not enough in the screenplay to communicate the sense that Matilde is working toward true agency. Her inevitable transformation at the end, then, is not only unsatisfying but feels unearned.
In fact, Freaks Out seems preoccupied with looking cool and feeling offbeat without considering basic narrative requirements. With such an intense visual language and detailed costume and set design, it’s a shame that the story lacks similar heft. Despite the film’s length, it offers little understanding of the performers’ backstories or what their powers means to them. How did they end up in the circus, and what motivates them to stay together? Israel, as well, feels like a shady character, but I am not sure how intentional that is. Does he arouse suspicion because he’s selfish, or is it because we don’t know much about him?
Without any emotional tie to the central characters, it’s hard as a viewer to enjoy the more playful parts of the film. The explosions, fight scenes and piano solos by Franz might entice some, but to me they felt like ways to avoid meaningfully building on the narrative. Matilde meets several people along what becomes a solo journey, but their ties to her feel shallow, and it’s hard to believe they are transformational (even though the film wants them to be).
Then there’s Franz, who we’re meant to believe is driven less by Nazi ideology and more by self-loathing. His desire to prove himself consumes him and fuels the increasingly desperate measures he takes to try to find Matilde and her friends. The film could have capitalized more on his character but doesn’t.
While I admire its attempts to be distinctive, Freaks Out lacks focus, which makes it a frustrating viewing experience. It’s an ambitious project that I mostly wish took its characters a bit more seriously.