CAPSULE: FREAKS VS. THE REICH (2021)

AKA Freaks Out

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Freaks vs. the Reich is currently available for VOD rental.

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DIRECTED BY: Gabriele Mainetti

FEATURING: Aurora Giovinazzo, Claudio Santamaria, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Franz Rogowski

PLOT: In 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome, Matilde, Fulvio, Cencio, and Mario are the stars of the Half-Penny Circus; Franz, a Nazi with oracular abilities, wishes to get all twelve of his fingers on the troupe of freaks in the hopes of averting disaster for the Reich.

Still from Freaks vs. the Reich (2021)

COMMENTS: In a world saturated with superheroes, I say, “bring on the Super Freaks.” Gabriele Mainetti’s feature-length debut has rip-rollicking adventure, charming humor, concerts, explosions, Nazis, swarms of bugs, and—and everything I’d be looking for in a big-screen period piece. Having been lucky enough to catch this at Fantasia last year, it nearly pained me not to treat it with the full writeup it deserves. My fond recollections of this film are best captured with my remarks jotted down immediately following the screening:

“Come one, come all, to the Half-Penny Circus. Witness the aerial insect artistry of Cencio the albino! Giggle at the pratfalls of Mario the magnetic clown! Behold the raw strength—and ample fur—of Man-Beast Fulvio! And delight in the electrifying acrobatic artistry of Matilde, who powers light bulbs with the touch of her fingers!”

Freaks Out deftly walks a thin tight-rope while simultaneously pulling off an impressive hat trick (I shall now dispense with the carnival metaphors). Mainetti quite obviously, and quite unashamedly, dips into several buckets of influence: superheroes, Nazi baddies, buddy comedies, and action movie razzle-dazzle. These are all reliable, if perhaps well-worn, sources, but the alchemical combination makes the concoction shine. Just in the opening scene featuring the Half-Penny Circus, we witness whimsy, true magic—and a shell-blast of stark, wartime realism as the performance is interrupted by the surrounding carnage. The four freaks all feel fleshed-out, and fresh, as they follow their mentor-cum-manager through the blasted streets and hillsides of Rome under Nazi occupation.

But the coup de grâce comes, as it so often does, from the villain:  mild-mannered, six-fingered, future-glimpsin’, ether-huffin’ Nazi Franz, who wants to save the Fatherland while simultaneously being denigrated by his countrymen’s allegorical stand-in, his older brother. Rogowski brings gravitas, tenderness (the performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by twelve-fingered piano-man is an early show-stopper), frustration, machination, and, against all the odds, sympathy to his performance. In one scene Franz liquidates “sub-standard” freaks, and in another mutilates his body to conform with the able-ist standards of Nazi knuckle-beaks.

I’m repeating myself from before, I realize, but my nostalgia for Freaks Out hit me to a degree I was not anticipating. That in mind, I will leave you with some words of advice, and hearty request. Stand by your friends, say “No!” to Nazis, and find the time to watch Freaks Out on the biggest screen and through the biggest speakers you can find. Mainetti has obviously set this troupe up as a franchise, so get the word out about Freaks Out. I want to see them smash the Nazis again. (And again…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange and complex muddling of X-Men and The Shape of Water, with an abundance of Nazi’s, Freaks Out will have you crying, laughing, wincing, and smiling as it tells its epic story of belonging and embracing your weirdness.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)

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