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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (12/1/2024)

Updated: Jan 13

(Reviews of The Disappearance of Shere Hite; Who Is James Payton?; Blank; and Freaks vs The Reich)


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE.


Documentarist Nicole Newnham has had quite a career. Since debuting with Unforgettable Face (1994), she has teamed with photographer Brian Lanker on a study of Second World War combat artists, They Drew Fire (2000), and exposed Nazi cultural crimes in The Rape of Europa (2006). This received several Emmy nominations, as did The Revolutionary Optimists (2013), which centred on four slum children in Kolkata.


Newnham has frequently collaborated with others on projects like Sentenced Home (2006), a report on US immigration policy that was co-directed by David Grabias. She worked with Australian artist Lynette Walworth on the virtual reality short, Collisions (2016), which earned her the Emmy for Outstanding New Approaches to Documentary. A second win in the same category came for Awavena (2020), which appeared in the same year as Crip Camp, an insight into disability activism that earned Newnham and co-director James LeBrecht an Oscar nomination. One would hope that she is in line for another for her latest actuality, The Disappearance of Shere Hite.


In 1994, Shere Hite sat at an editing desk to look back on an interview she had given in 1976, following the publication of her groundbreaking book, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality. She admits that she had been nervous about discussing her discovery that the majority of American women she had surveyed reached orgasm through masturbation rather than penetrative intercourse. The notion of `thrusting' had made the male camera operator giggle and he had been sharply reprimanded by the female presenter. But his scoffing attitude recurs in the several of the clips assembled to bolster this bold opening gambit, as Newnham exposes the chauvinist backlash that had greeted the pioneering research that had contradicted many of the findings made by sexologists Alfred Kinsey and William Masters and Virginia Johnson.


As an historian of the Enlightenment, Hite knew that strenuous efforts had been made down the ages to suppress discussion of female sexuality. Indeed, she noted that there had been no terminology relating to women's sexual pleasure until she shifted the focus on to clitoral stimulation. On meeting her for the first time, New York neighbour and literary agent Regina Ryan was thrilled to hear Hite referring to body parts with such naturalness and she pressed to turn the responses to the mimeographed questionnaire that Hite had mailed to around 3000 women into a book.


Hite had come to the city to study on Jacques Barzun's course on the history of thought at Columbia University. Yet, when she asked if he had read her masters thesis, he refused to accept that a woman (and especially one educated at the University of Florida) could have produced such a sophisticated piece of work. She had decided to study history to gain a greater understanding of the inequalities and injustices of her own time and she had been dismayed by such open class and gender prejudice.


As a poor student, Hite needed to earn money to survive. She turned to modelling and photographer Mike Wilson echoes previously made comments about Hite's Pre-Raphaelite looks and arresting dress sense. In Dakota Johnson's voiceover, Hite explains that modelling seemed the least exploitative form of social prostitution, as it allowed her to make money through a combination of independence and emotional detachment. One of her assignments with Robert McGinnis resulted in her posing for both of the women depicted either side of Sean Connery's James Bond in the poster for Diamonds Are Forever (1971).


McGinnis also used Hite for numerous pulp paperback covers, while she often struck poses for Wilson based on the old films they watched together. However, modelling was only a means to an end so that she could pursue her expertise the French Revolution, classical music, and Balkan farming. But fellow graduate Karla Joy recalls how difficult it was in this period for women to be taken seriously in academic circles. She met the bisexual Hite at a forum for gay scholars to express their frustration at having research topics dismissed by sneering all-male hierarchies. Becoming increasingly frustrated by the compromises she needed to make to get modelling work, Hite decided to rebel after appearing in a commercial for an Olivetti typewriter that was supposedly so smart that the secretary using it didn't have to be. She joined a protest outside the company's headquarters staged by the National Organisation for Women and activist/historian Joyce Gold recalls the impact the campaign had.

Hite writes about feeling at home at NOW meetings and on pickets such as the one against the stereotypical depiction of women and indigenous cultures in the displays at the Natural History Museum. She also became friends with clinical psychologist student Janet Wolfe, who became interested in sexuality while sleeping with men in order to pay for her course. Around this time, Hite initiated a NOW debate about Masters and Johnson's theories on thrusting and we see footage of women sharing their experiences of sex in discussion groups.


As so many women found it embarrassing to talk about sex in public, Hite hit upon the idea of launching a survey in September 1972 and Wilson recalls helping her distribute it across New York on his motorcycle. She then started mailing it to feminist and church groups across the country and advertising it in women's magazines. Hite wrote to Martin Sage, the editor of Sexology magazine, who commissioned pieces based on the replies she had received and we hear extracts from various women who were grateful for the chance to comment on their sex lives at a time when they were still taboo.


Ryan suggested collating the responses into a book and her husband came up with the title of The Hite Report. Writer Dylan Andis helped with the data analysis and she explains the tallying code that was devised to draw conclusions from the testimonies handwritten on the questionnaires. She compares the process to embroidery, as patterns started to appear. In interviews, Hite gets the giggles while drawing attention to the fact that women often fake orgasms to end intercourse because they simply want to get their male partner off them. She suggests women have adapted their sexuality to suit men and that this has to stop if they are to achieve equality in and out of the bedroom.


Sage and Ryan reveal that Macmillan only planned to publish 4000 copies as they didn't want the book to succeed. So, Hite decided to make the launch a news story and assembled a panel that included Janet Wolfe and Kay Whitlock from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Hite also appeared with Geraldo Rivera on Good Night America, where there was shock at the use on television of words associated with female sexuality. But she was taken aback by the vitriol hurled by male commentators after the book had been positively reviewed by female critics. We see film director Otto Preminger involved in a smarmy chat show discussion about the need to consider female sexuality when men have had no complaints for thousands of years. But her frustration at some of the questioning (including from woman) is readily evident in some interviews, as she is consistently forced to justify the views of her 3000 correspondents.


In 1977, Hite threw a party to thank those who had loaned her money during the five-year writing period. A newspaper latched on to the fact that the doorman in Ryan's building had loaned her $15,000 at a time when women couldn't get a credit card without being vouched for by a man. She also started dating artist Ed Rath, who had been decorating at her new home in the Alden Hotel when they met. Once the publicity merry-go-round stopped turning, Hite started work on a book about men's attitudes towards sex, while another questionnaire was prepared to catch-up on women's emotional issues that she had been forced to exclude from the first tome.


But she also responded to the societal changes that her work had helped prompt, such as the Christian Right's reaction to laws relating to abortion and gay rights. Hite paid to oppose Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign in Dade County, Florida in 1977 and continued to support what would now be called LGBTQIA+ causes. She also took on the misogynists following the 1981 publication of The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (which canvassed 7239 men from 15 to 97), with host Mike Douglas and actor David Hasselhof having smoke disdainfully blown over them during a TV interview. Publisher Carl Gottlieb claims she became more flamboyant and combative around this time because she was so tired of being considered a celebrity curio rather than a serious scholar.


Gottlieb recalls the sadness with which he read around 100 questionnaires, as it became apparent to him that many males across the social and age range felt isolated and stressed. But the book didn't sell as well, while many responded with bristling displays of masculinity like the one Hite was given by an all-male panel on Leave It to the Women. Some critics questioned her methodology for being unscientific, even though her surveys were every bit as representative as those of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Hite also had to deal with the `bimbo' retorts that followed the resurfacing of some nude pictures she had done for Playboy during her modelling days.


Having sued Macmillan for unpaid royalties, Hite bought an apartment and Kiss frontman Gene Simmons recalls being her neighbour. We hear Hite's checklist for de-stressing and learn about her fabulous parties with eclectic guest lists. Newnham also diverts back to a lonely small-town childhood (without mentioning her given name of Shirley), which saw Hite's father abandon her mother soon after her unplanned birth and her grandparents raise her because she limited her mother's options. Sage recalls how reluctant she was to discuss her past and he feels she similarly suppressed her feelings about the often woundingly personal criticism aimed at her.


Gottlieb believes that the naturally shy Hite liked her PhD Playboy image and enjoyed dressing up and being noticed, even though her image was often used against her. In 1985, she married German concert pianist Friedrich Höricke, who was 19 years her junior. Three years later, she published Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, and the customary criticisms of her `scientific' approach resurfaced. Some academics questioned how Hite had arrived at the percentages she claimed when discussing dissatisfaction with spouses and infidelity among married women. But she insisted on fighting her corner, even when things turned ugly, such as when Oprah Winfrey introduced her to a hostile all-male audience.


She laughed off a Washington Post counter poll by saying that women wouldn't give honest answers down the phone from their homes. But when Maury Povich hijacked her with the limousine driver who claimed Hite had attacked him, she walked off the set amidst mockery from both Povich and the camera crew. She looked zoned out during a Larry King phone in and publicisit Nicholas Latimer admits that her contretemps with Australian interviewer Ian Leslie was the exception to the rule that all publicity is bad publicity.


These episodes alerted friends to the fact that the negativity surrounding her work was beginning to take its toll. Rath concedes that Hite disliked criticism, but declares that baiting her became a badge of honour and she decided to stop making herself the target. As we see evidence of the Christian Right seeking to push back against radical feminism in the United States in the early 1990s, Hite relocated to Germany, where she renounced her US citizenship in 1995. She divorced four years later and wound up living in a semi-squat in London, where she continued to write, even though her new works were not published in America. Kate Millett suggested that Hite had been censured and censored, as her opponents had sought to silence her because they so feared her ideas and revelations.


A clip from a London interview ends with Hite claiming to be nervous at talking on camera because she has had enough of threats and abuse. She took time learning to trust German photographer Iris Brosch, but they made lots of memorable images together, including some famous pictures in a Parisian fountain in imitation of John Everett Millais's `Ophelia' (1851-52). But, while she made an appearance on The Colbert Report in 2006, Hite was eased out of the conversation long before her death following a long illness in 2020. Yet, The Hite Report remains No.30 on the all-time bestseller list and she continued to hope that the 15,000 anonymous responses she received during her career would mean that women down the line wouldn't have to fight the same battles that she had waged.


The fact that this aspiration feels under threat in the third decade of the 21st century - and in the aftermath of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements - should be a source of endless dismay. But the patriarchal privileges that prejudice continues to protect and promote are far too precious to let slip and populism has done more than its share to undermine the gains made by radical activists in the 1960s and 70s. Inspired to make this profile by reading Hite's obituary, Newnham uses her airbrushing (or is it an early example of cancelling) to alert audiences to dangers posed by the moral minority. But no matter how many positive reviews this important film receives, it will pass unnoticed by those who need to see it most.


The odd dissenting voice from the 2020s might have proved instructive, while a bit more trenchancy is perhaps required in analysing Hite's methodology. But the points about her significance and legacy are cogently made, while editor Eileen Meyer's use of the wealth of filmic and photographic archive material is exemplary. Lisbeth Scott's score is also pitch perfect, as are Dakota Johnson's voiceovers, while the talking heads assess Hite's complex personality and unprecedented achievements without lapsing into hagiography. Clearly, she deserves to be restored as an innovatory intellectual and a feminist icon. But it's about time us blokes recognise that Hite did us a favour too, if only we weren't too status-obsessed, suppressively cowardly, emotionally shallow, and vengefully vulnerable to realise it.


WHO IS JAMES PAYTON?


You will have to frequent the fringes of the UK festival circuit to have seen video artist Oliver Guy-Watkins's feature debut, Always in the Present (2014). The documentary duo of Overthrow the Social Order (2018) and Goodnight London (2019) were also largely confined to festival slots. But his fourth feature has made a bit of a stir by posing the question about his fellow Glostonian, Who Is James Payton?


Having spent the night in a motel near a fairground, jobbing actor James Payton attends a fan convention to flog photographs for £10 a pop. Some people are interested in him because he has played Adolf Hitler in both Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and George Clooney's The Monuments Men (2014). Perhaps more significantly, he also made an uncredited appearance as Frank Longbottom in David Yates's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) and the way he reassures an overawed teenage girl that she does more to keep the magic alive than he does is quite delightful. So is the shot of Payton looking bored at his table while Darth Vader and some Stormtroopers stride in behind him. It's also rather fun that the camera's view is obscured at one point by a passing Dalek.


Payton knows how to play the convention game. Like fellow Potter alumnus Chris Rankin, he is wittily self-deprecating when introducing himself on stage and confessing that his favourite role was in a film that no one will have seen. This just happens to be Always in the Present (which no longer appears to be on Vimeo, as he claims) and he does well not to give Guy-Watkins's camera a sly wink across the hall.


Having improvised a scene from J.K. Rowling's book in which Neville Longbottom comes to see his hexed parents in hospital, Payton hits the road again for another convention. Grabbing a crafty smoke outside the venue, he jokes with Rankin about how his life has come to this when he had aspired to winning a BAFTA for a BBC detective series. But he is grateful that he gets to tour different parts of the country that look exactly the same.


Back inside, Payton tries to convince a young boy named Alfie that going to Waitrose for quinoia is an adventure and flirts with a young woman named Hannah because he likes palindromic names. Following a brief Q&A session in which he describes his favourite aspect of making movies, he judges the fancy dress competition and makes sure everyone knows that they're losers if they don't come first. As he leaves, he confides in Rankin that his car is playing up, but he can't afford to get it repaired.


When not tactfully handling questions about the precarious nature of the acting profession, Payton does whatever it takes to pay the bills. Consequently, he gives a reading at a party that seems to be taking place in an aquarium. He chats about Peter Benchley regretting writing Jaws because it gave sharks a bad name before a cutaway shows him reminiscing about his father's death when he was 12 and how phrases like `passed away' do nothing to soften the devastating blow of losing a loved one. Looking back, he remembers that he changed forever the moment he kissed his dead father's cold forehead.


At what appears to be a petting zoo, Payton plays improv games with Tony Slattery. He claims Payton looks like a 1970s porn star with his goatee and liquorice paper roll-ups and they pretend to dub a plumber scene before they are interrupted by the siren of an American cop car. Faced with a room full of excited Potter fans in Manchester, he shows them how to use a wand to remove unwanted memories and has fun with the watching parents when one excited kid asks if he's rich.


In another one-to-one with Guy-Watkins, Payton recalls compiling a list of reasons for living or dying, while serving as Viggo Mortensen's stand-in on David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007). While admitting that he probably didn't have the wherewithal to top himself, he reveals that curiosity as to what might come next kept him going. If he had gone through with it, he would have missed being offered the role of Tony Blair in Nick Moran's Creation Stories (2021) while the pair are chinwagging about wrestlers while watching a bout in an outdoor ring at yet another convention.


Fitted with contact lenses and prosthetic teeth, Payton perfects his Blair accent and meets up with Clare Kissane, who has been cast as Cherie. He's driven to the location and finds himself in the midst of ordered chaos before winding down in the green room without his trousers. All of a sudden, he's finished his scenes and the make-up man is removing the weave from the back of his hair and normality resumes.


This means another Harry Potter meet`n'greet, this time in a picturesque church with Georgina Leonidas, who played Katie Bell. They make each other laugh during a question about getting into character and he's also on good form improvising a conversation between a Welshman and a South African with Walles Hamonde in front of a lively audience after a length signing session. They find themselves together for a Q&A, in which Payton reveals that he decided to become an actor after Arthur Lubin's Francis the Talking Mule (1950) had made him laugh the day his dad died. He wanted to be able to make life better for someone else in the way that Donald O'Connor and Chill Wills had cheered him up at his lowest point.


Even if he hadn't already made a lasting impression, one could only wish Payton well after this poignant revelation. But he's not one to dwell and the film ends with him traipsing across London to embark upon another job, as Daan Hofman jaunty silent cinema-style piano score takes us into the closing credits and a clutch of outtakes that ends with Payton hoping not to jinx himself by declaring that (after all he's been through) things seem to be going well.


At times, this feels like a fly-on-the-wall version of Ricky Gervais's Extras (2005-07), as Guy-Watkins captures the less glamorous side of being an actor. But he resists asking the probing questions that might have forced Payton to bare his soul. John Schofield's camera may well have caught the odd grumble to agent Kaye Freeman. But editor Orly Nurany gives Payton the benefit of any doubt, as there's no side to him. Indeed, he readily dispenses with any vanity in putting on his showtime face to ensure that fans of all ages take home a treasured memory.


Philosophical and dry-witted, Payton is under no illusions about his status. But he takes a pride in what he does and respects those who pay their money. Let's hope after this, the offers come rolling in. And someone puts Always in the Present back online.


BLANK.


Mancunian Natalie Kennedy has been making shorts since Shed (2011). This is available to view on her website, along with Trauma and Doris (both 2013), although there is no sign of her more recent outings, Cinderella Nights (2015) or Down and Out (2017). Despite only premiering in cinemas last week, her debut feature, Blank, can also be found online, courtesy of Amazon Prime - which says much for the way exhibition works these days, as a mobile phone is considered as valid a platform as a cinema screen.


Struggling with her latest novel, Clare Rivers (Rachel Shelley) checks into The Retreat, a fully automated getaway designed to allow writers to worry only about their work. She is greeted by a hologrammatic concierge - who she dubs Henry (Wayne Brady) - and a maid programmed to her needs named Rita (Heida Reed). Unpacking her typewriter after a run in the grounds, Clare searches vainly for inspiration and instead thinks back to when her teenage self (Annie Cusselle) had to type up the manuscripts of her demanding blind mother, Helen (Rebecca-Clare Evans).


Intrigued by Rita's unemotive efficiency and Henry's growing affability, Clare settles into a routine that involves plenty of white wine and chess games with Henry. Things change, however, when malware is detected in the system. It causes a malfunction that makes Henry disappear and Rita return to her default settings. Moreover, the doors lock and Rita makes it clear that Clare will only be permitted to leave once her book is completed.


Peeved by the removal of her liberty and comforts and the fact that the windows are unbreakable, Clare tries to summon help by activating her car alarm. But no one comes and she soon grows tired of Rita repeatedly suggesting that she's stressed and needs a lie down. The service robot even foils Clare's effort to pass off typed pages from The Count of Monte Cristo as her own work. When she strives to start a fire in the kitchen to force the emergency doors open, she has to be saved by Rita. However, she has no memory of her heroism, even though she had re-learnt overnight how to pour coffee without spilling it.


Tormented by recurrent thoughts of her demanding mother, Clare starts typing. Rita reads the pages and offers notes, at one point echoing the abusive Helen. Henry apologises for his absence and urges Clare to keep working, as it's the only way in which Rita will be allowed to stand down. Realising that no one is coming to help her and that food is running out, Clare uses her birthday and the fact that Rita can detect truth to jolt her into tripping her override. But Rita remains on message and even expresses surprise when Clare bawls at her.


After a night's drinking, Clare takes exception to Rita's admonishment and smashes some plates. She has a nightmare about creeping into her mother's room and fleeing after a tussle. But the contretemps with Rita focusses her mind and she completes the manuscript. Without reading it, Rita questions the honesty of the ending and Clare wonders how she can know what the denouement should be. That night, she waits until Rita has powered down so she can drag her to the door to see if her hand can activate the lock panel. When this gambit fails, Clare uses a defibrillator in the study to damage Rita's system and she hauls her to the door to secure her exit just before the red-dressed domestic expires. Cross-cut with this struggle is Clare's escape from Helen after she had been caught in a lie about a magazine accepting a story. In despair after her daughter had fled, Helen had fallen down the stairs and Clare had returned to steal her typewriter and the finished novels she had locked in a trunk before departing.


It's a neat ending, but one can't help feeling that screenwriter Stephen Herman has strung things out to reach it. Moreover, he has disregarded the basics of corporate tech support in order to generate Clare's plight. A sophisticated facility like The Retreat may well fall victim to cyber crime, but it wouldn't take two months for the IT unit to repair and reboot the system. It also seems unlikely that Clare's disappearance would have gone entirely unnoticed, especially as her agent had mentioned a 30-day deadline from the publisher. As she doesn't appear to have taken her laptop with her and had spotted the advertisement online, it should be fairly easy to track her down.


But the plausibility of the plot evidently matters less than its potentiality, as Kennedy pits the increasingly overwrought Clare against the impassive Rita. Editors Tamsin Gregory and Andrew McKee work wonders in creating tight little montages that convey Clare's stifling creative anguish and creeping sense of incarceratory desperation. But this doesn't mean that Rachel Shelley's performance feels in any way manufactured. She captures Clare's consternation and ennui from the outset, along with the sense of entitled arrogance that dictates her rapport with both the adaptable Henry and Rita, who becomes even more passive-aggressively jobsworthy after her glitch sets in.


Kennedy adeptly alters the way in which James Oldham's camera moves around Rhiannon Clifford's set to reflect Clare's burgeoning sense of entrapment, which is reinforced by some intrusive close-ups. Despite the best efforts of Annie Cusselle and Rebecca-Clare Evans, the flashbacks are markedly less successful. Not only do they underline the debts owed to Rob Reiner's Misery (1990) and Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2014), but their lack of a contextualising backstory also makes Clare and Helen's situation feel like a writerly contrivance. But, when it comes to fiction, what isn't?


FREAKS VS THE REICH.


After spending a decade making a clutch of shorts, Italian director Gabriele Mainetti made his feature bow with the well-received They Call Me Jeeg (2015). Designed as a homage to Go Nagai's manga series, Steel Jeeg, this was a bold bid to rethink the superhero format. Five years on, Mainetti turned his attention to American comic-books in Freaks vs The Reich. The fact this film was finished in 2020 (when it was known as Freaks Out) and is only now reaching UK cinemas should raise suspicions. But critics seem divided as to whether this Venice prize winner is an instant cult classic or an insensitively trivialising atrocity.


In 1943, the Mezza Piotta Circus returns to Italy after an extended tour of Europe. Ringmaster Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) plays all the instruments, as his four acts parade their skills before a small audience. Albino Cencio (Pietro Castellitto) fascinates with his mastery of insects, while Mario the dwarf clown (Giancarlo Martini) amuses with his magnetic powers. The hypertrichosic Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) momentarily terrorises as he bends the bars of his cage. But his strongman act draws apprecative applause before the electrically charged Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) draws gasps with her ability to make lightbulbs glow while performing somersaults.


The show is interrupted by an air raid that reduces the small town to rubble. But, while the troupe's two-horse cart rumbles towards Rome, polydactyl pianist Franz (Franz Rogowski) prepares for a performance with the Zirkus Berlin. In addition to having the gift of prognostication, he is also intent on finding the freakishly empowered foursome that he is convinced will tilt the Second World War in Nazi Germany's favour. But his SS officer brother, Amon (Sebastian Hülk), is unimpressed as Franz lashes out at a man with gills who drowns in a sealed water helmet. He gives him a week to find his freaks or he will close him down.


Convinced it's no longer safe to stay in Italy, the four friends donate 300 lira each to book passages to America. But Israel disappears with the money and Matilde becomes concerned he has been arrested after witnessing a Jewish round-up. Her colleagues escape from a truck after being arrested and decide to throw in their lot with Franz. But Matilde insists on finding the man who had taken her in when no one else would touch her because of the electrical charges she gives off on contact. Having shocked a soldier who tried to rape her, she joins up with the Crippled Devils, a resistance group led by The Hunchback (Max Mazzotta), who can't understand why she doesn't want to use her power to kill the enemy.


Meanwhile, Fulvio and Mario have been taken on by the Zirkus Berlin, while Cencio is forced to linger on the edges of the compound. After they are gassed in their tent, the trio are subjected to tests by Franz's team and pronounced special rather than remarkable. Frustrated, Franz sniffs a cocktail of chemicals and has a vision after finding a mobile phone in the circus ring. Driven to distraction by the images whirling around him, he sees four spectral figures reaching out to him before he witnesses what he takes to be Adolf Hitler's suicide.


Matilde joins the Devils on patrol and rushes towards a truck when she spots Israel being transported to the railway station. Her new friends are forced to rescue her when she tries to climb aboard and the Hunchback beats her back at the camp for refusing to use her gift to help them. She insists her power is a curse because it caused her accidentally to kill her mother. Cesira (Francesca Anna Bellucci) takes pity on her and introduces her to One-Eye (Olivier Bony), a sniper who tells her about Franz and his deluded quest to create a super force.

Determined to rescue her fellow freaks, Matilde sneaks into the Zirkus Berlin, only to be captured by Franz. He quickly discovers her talent and realises that Fulvio, Mario, and Cencio make up his `fantastic four'. Having proposed to his assistant, Irina (Anna Tenta), Franz dons full uniform to introduce The Wolf Man, the Human Magnet, Insect Boy, and the Electric Girl at a gala performance in front of a visiting field marshal.


Rather than use her charge to kill a tiger in her cage, Matilde tames it and the humiliated Franz retreats to his office after condemning the quartet to a fiery death. However, the crisis prompts Matilde to master her powers and she blows off the furnace door off before Fulvio fires her and Cencio from the circus cannon so they can save the now entrained Israel. Kissing in mid-air (as love clearly makes Cencio immune), the pair land in a haystack, where they are joined by a flying Mario. Fulvio arrives with three white horses and they gallop after the train.


Franz, meanwhile, has throttled Amon and stolen his SS uniform. He has also sliced off his extra pinkies and orders the soldiers standing around outside the circus to chase the fugitives. Irina rides in a sidecar, as Franz leads the pursuit, using a clairvoyant sketch he has made to guide him. He reaches the train just as the freaks are opening the cattle truck doors after having unleashed bees into a luxurious compartment containing the escorting Nazis. But the Devils show up to launch a counter-ambush and a chaotic skirmish ensues before Matilde turns herself into a fireball to vanquish the foe. Seeing Irina reduced to ashes, Franz commits suicide (with an inordinately long revolver) and the Mezza Piotta crew walk off into the sunrise after having entrusted the liberated Jews to the partisans.


There's nothing new about the Third Reich being confounded by comic-book heroes, as the Indiana Jones movies have shown. But once the Holocaust is factored into the equation, as was the case of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), it becomes more difficult to cheer on the good guys blowing the Nazis to smithereens. It doesn't help that Mainetti and Nicola Guaglianone's screenplay lurches gauchely between slapstick, pathos, and genocide. But editor Francesco Di Stefano seems to be under instruction to make any action sequences as incoherent as possible, so that it's rarely possible (especially during the nocturnal finale) to fathom who is shooting at whom.


The CGI doesn't help much, either, with the collapse of the campanile in the opening assault looking cheap and cartoonish. As written, Franz also runs the risk of lapsing into caricature. But, by channelling his inner Vincent Gallo, Franz Rogowski succeeds in making him a dangerously delusional megalomaniac (whose musical repertoire includes tunes snatched from the future by Radiohead and Guns N' Roses) and it's frustrating that only Matilde is anything more than a cipher. Despite distractingly resembling Emma Radacanu, Aurora Giovinazzo ably reveals the teenage ingenue's struggle to come to terms with the potency of her superpower and its cost. However, the romantic subplot with Cencio is as much a miscalculation as Franz's sudden passion for Irina.


Massimiliano Sturiale's production design is first rate, with the gaping maw of the Zirkus Berlin being queasily effective. Michele D'Attansio's cinematography is also unsettlingly striking, while the score by Mainetti and Michele Braga is a suitable blend of bombast and melodic mawkishness. Yet, for all the stylistic slickness, Mainetti makes too many clumsy and unpalatable choices for this to pass as inculpable entertainment.











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