In the pantheon of notoriously unavailable films, Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” occupies a special plinth: Its outline — a circus clown is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp where he cheers up Jewish children before being forced to lead them to their doom — makes it one of the few movies to have been suppressed purely on the grounds of “yikes.” It is perhaps unfair to compare it with “Freaks Out,” the second film from Italian director Gabriele Mainetti (“They Call Me Jeeg”), though given that Mainetti’s film also involves circus performers, Nazis and a train full of Jewish people being transported to the camps, quite which film the comparison is unfair to is up for debate. After all, Lewis’ boondoggle didn’t have in it a psychotic, ether-addicted, six-fingered, “Sieg Heil!”-ing pianist who can see into the future, and a whole host of references to, of all things, the Marvel Comics canon.
A ghastly concoction of razzle-dazzle circus maximalism, poorly CG’d supernatural whimsy and sentimentality so cloyingly sweet you can feel it in your fillings, “Freaks Out” is, however, almost admirably unaware that its over-egged, unironically “Springtime for Hitler” production design, and its lazy invocation of the Holocaust as a narrative shortcut to high emotional stakes, might be in questionable taste. Instead, this is a sincere, if deeply misguided attempt to fabricate weepy wonderment amid the ruination of World War II. As circus ringmaster Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) announces at the outset, under the fairytale sprinkles and mystical theremins of Mainetti and Michele Braga’s omnipresent score, the aim is to transport us to a world where bombs are falling and mass extermination is occurring, but also one where “imagination is reality!” and “nothing is as it seems!”
Actually, everything is as it seems. Shacked up on the outskirts of occupied Rome, Israel’s traveling troupe comprises: albino Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), who can command insects to do his bidding; Wolfman Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria), who can bend iron with his bare, hairy hands; constantly masturbating, comically well-endowed dwarf clown Mario (Giancarlo Martini), to whom metal sticks as though he were magnetic; and Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), a purehearted young girl who cannot be touched because she generates electricity that lights up bulbs and gives shocks. The thing is, these are not simply performers, they actually have these supernatural powers, (all of which — bar maybe the masturbation — correlate in various ways to the mutant abilities that characterize the X-Men.)
Also endowed with uncanny gifts is Franz (Franz Rogowski a great, subtle actor giving one of his least great or subtle performances), the fanatical Nazi frontman of the far better-appointed nearby ZirkusBerlin. Franz, with an extra digit on either hand, is famous for his piano recitals, but his true power is that in the whirling zoetrope of his dreams, he sees the future (which mysteriously seems to stop around now, prompting one to ponder what apocalyptic event is about to befall us). Franz’s lab is covered in drawings of these visions, allowing Michele D’Attanasio’s feverishly busy camera to pan across sketches of PlayStation controllers and smartphones. But the best use he’s been able to make of it so far seems to have been copyright theft: Cue a 1943 audience being enraptured by elevator-muzak-style instrumentalizations of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.”
Of course, Franz also knows that Germany will lose the war and Hitler will kill himself. These are eventualities he is desperate to avoid, despite the frank disbelief of his brother, a high-ranking Nazi embarrassed by his freakish sibling’s demented quest to put together a team of similarly gifted individuals to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Third Reich.
As if the story weren’t garish enough, Mainetti and co-screenwriter Nicola Guaglianone further pepper it with distractingly random riffs on 20th- and 21st-century pop culture. Aside from the very obvious X-Men and Avengers shout-outs, Franz’s visions of the foursome, whom he actually calls his “fantastic four” are always designed to look like the famous silhouettes on the Yellow Brick Road (as if Matilde’s Dorothy braids weren’t enough of a giveaway). A roving band of maimed and crippled partisans seem to have arrived directly from a Terry Gilliam film. The obviously Chewbacca-like Fulvio is more than once framed in terms of “Star Wars” mythology, Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” gets a look in and the pantomimed Big Top scenes do no one the favor of recalling Alex de la Iglesia’s “The Last Circus.” We’re even treated to a winky moment torn wholesale from “Reservoir Dogs” when a character speaks into a severed ear.
Even if one manages not to be appalled by its basic premise, when the film tacks together so much expensively shoddy-looking busywork in service of so little genuine wit or heart, it’s really hard to see where the “Freaks Out” appeal is supposed to lie, except maybe for connoisseurs of kitsch, who now, in its plush, vulgar excesses, have the cinematic equivalent of a velvet Elvis painting to enjoy.