Rome, 1943, the Circo Mezza Piotta where nothing is as it seems, Cencio dancing with fireflies and offering a scorpion kiss, Mario clowning about with magnetism, and dropping from the top of the tent giving an electrical and illuminating performance is Matilde; hirsute Fulvio may be the dog-faced man but Israel is the barker and emcee, guiding and mentoring his performers, yet beyond the torn canvas is the war.
Their venue bombed, Cencio, Mario, Matilde and Fulvio (Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martin, Aurora Giovinazzo and Caludio Santamaria) have nowhere to go, freaks out on the street, while the fascist forces controlling the country round up any undesirables, gypsies, Jews and the disabled, among them Israel (Giorgi Tirabassi), preparing them to be deported by rail to a concentration camp, getting the freaks out of the city.
Directed by Gabriele Mainetti from a script co-written with Nicola Guaglianone, Freaks Out was at the time of its production one of the most expensive Italian films ever made, budgeted at around twelve million euros, a Second World War superhero fantasy of vibrant imagination and design which foregrounds the courage of the resistance while never forgetting the pain and suffering of those who survived, nor the many who could not be saved.
Across town is the Zirkus Berlin led by six-fingered pianist Franz (Franz Rogowski), in thrall to the visions of the future he sketches when waking from his ether-mediated fugues and his brother Amon (Sebastian Hülk), a senior military officer whom he desperately wishes to impress as much as the Führer whose suicide he has foreseen, believing the four shadowy figures he has glimpsed are the key to changing the future and ensuring victory for the Third Reich.
The Nazis a theme running through many superhero films, Freaks Out is more akin to Hellboy than The First Avenger, outsiders standing up to overwhelming adversity and authoritarianism rather than champions costumed in the colours of the banners they parade beneath, though with well-armed amputee guerillas the Crippled Devils hiding in the forests beyond the city there is also more than a dash of Álex de la Iglesia’s subversive Acción mutante.
Entered in competition at the Venice International Film Festival and screened as part of FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival, despite the sometimes difficult road travelled Freaks Out arrives at a destination built on the sincere joy of seeing Nazis humiliated and defeated by any means necessary, a joyful reminder that fighting fascism is always the right thing to do whatever the heavy cost.
Glasgow Film Festival concluded on Sunday 13th March