Freaks Out (2021)

Freaks Out
Director: Gabriele Mainetti
Writer: Nicola Guaglianone, Gabriele Mainetti
Cast: Claudio Santamaria, Aurora Giovinazzo, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Giorgio Tirabassi, Max Mazzotta, Franz Rogowski
Part of: SLASH 1/2 Filmfestival
Seen on: 7.5.2022

Content Note: sexual assault, sexism, (critical treatment of) ableism, medical experiments

1943 in Italy. Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) runs a circus with his four artists Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) and Mario (Giancarlo Martini) – who actually all have supernatural powers that fuel their performances. The five try their best to stay out of the Nazis’ way, though there is the Circus Berlin stationed in Rome – supposedly the best circus in the world, headed by Franz (Franz Rogowski), a pianist with 12 fingers. Franz has superpowers of his own: he has seen the future and knows that it doesn’t look good for the Nazis. He is convinced that he has to find four superpowered people to prevent the Nazis from losing and he will do anything to find them.

I enjoyed Freaks Out for the most part. It is marred by the male gaze, but it’s entertaining and manages to combine comedy and Nazi horrors in a good way.

The film poster showing the four "freaks" in their performance poses, as well as Franz (Franz Rogowski) wearing a Nazi robe.

We know that the Nazis didn’t just kill Jewish people, but also disabled (and queer, and Romani, and… ) people. But we rarely get films that show us that part, too. Freaks Out makes it an explicit point, which is important considering the whole “freaks” theme. Not only do they show the experimentation with and persecution of the “fantastical freaks”, but we also see how disabled people are carted off with the Jewish people. And those scene hit hard. Even though the film is often quite frivolous and pretty funny, it never makes light of the atrocities committed and they carry the necessary weight.

Despite this really excellent, and not easy to pull off balance, there were a couple of things that I really didn’t enjoy that much about the film, and most of those have to do with how toxic masculinity and the male gaze suffuse it. Starting with the fact that there is only one woman in the central foursome (or rather girl), and practically no other women of note in the film.She, of course, has to have a romance with one of the guys – a romance that is characterized by “he teases you because he likes you” and includes a sexual assault. And she (and the other bigger female character) end up naked. Fulvio, the hairy dude, finds an equally furry woman at some point, altough with her costume, the film makes sure that her face is not hairy and she’s really pretty. But also the many jokes about Mario’s penis size (that, to me, contained a note of ableism as well – Mario has a learning disability and it’s like the film tries to counterbalance it by giving him a huge dick). It all gives the film a feeling of being made by cis het, definitely not queer men for cis het, definitely not queer men. As a queer woman, it was a little exhausting.

The four "freaks" - Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) and Mario (Giancarlo Martini) with Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi).

Plus, on a sidenote, Matilde’s superpower means that she is dangerous to touch in a way that she can’t control and I can think of at least 2 other female characters who have a superpower like this (Rogue from the X-Men, Alisha from the Misfits). Has there ever been a male character who was afflicted in that way?

Anyway, despite those things that I didn’t like and the showdown that grew a little long, I enjoyed the film overall. Rogowski was awesome, as usual, the circus show in the beginning really was magical for the audience as well, and the film has its heart in the right place. Overall it is really nice.

Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) driving the circus wagon with Cencio (Pietro Castellitto) and Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) beside him.

Summarizing: good entertainment despite some missteps.

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