Film Review: Abel Ferrara’s Elusive “Padre Pio” — A Holy Man?

By Steve Erickson

Wildly imperfect but intriguingly ambiguous, the film’s flaws and contradictions are a virtue because its purported saintly hero is so hard to pin down.

Padre Pio, directed by Abel Ferrara. Available on VOD.

Shia LaBeouf as the title character in Padre Pio.

Abel Ferrara has been living and working in Italy for 20 years and has made several documentaries about life in Naples and Rome. Still, until now, all of his work made there felt like it reflected the perspective of an immigrant. Not so the historical drama Padre Pio, his first film to tap into a homegrown strain of ’60s and ’70s Italian cinema (and politics) that synthesized Marxism and Christianity. (The film’s inspiration is Francesco Forgione, the Franciscan Capuchin friar controversial because of his stigmata and purported mysticism as well as his ties to, and later rejection of, fascism.) Ironically, Shia LaBeouf, who plays the title character, never pretends to use anything but his own American voice. The rest of the cast are entirely Italian and speak in English with their own accents. This is a distancing device that turns out to be more effective than damaging.

Padre Pio starts in a public square, where men have just begun returning from the battlefields of World War I. The trauma of the conflict left physical and psychological damage. One character is slowly dying from the effects of poisonous gas. Pio suffers from guilt because his religious position allowed him to avoid the draft; he is shaken by what has happened to his community. He argues about it with the devil, who appears in several incarnations. Or does he? Several scenes suggest that the priest has an overactive imagination, which may also explain the apparent stigmata on his hands. In the end, Pio concludes that his parishioners’ letters kept him out of the war and that probably saved his life.

The immediate post-WWI period is marked by a volatile class war instigated by the rich. A leftist speaker denounces private property and the abuses of ordinary people by landowners, but he’s criticized because he has come from a rich background himself. A soldier beats a long-haired man for speaking out similarly. Poor people are literally worked to death. The town’s first free elections turn out to be a scam: as one rich man says, “elections are a game, rigged to win.” During this increasingly violent conflict, Pio struggles with his faith, isolated in the chapel and mostly interacting with the townspeople at Mass. The private world of faith and the public worlds of power don’t intersect.

For a long time, Ferrara was seen as a junior Martin Scorsese, marked indelibly by Italian-American Catholicism and pursuing stories of violent men seeking unlikely forms of redemption. (The assault of a nun in the Bad Lieutenant epitomized this period.) But, unlike Scorsese, he’s never found a home in Hollywood. Many of his films have spent years waiting for minimal distribution in the US. He’s had two periods as a major director: the ’90s stretch from King of New York to New Rose Hotel, followed by his work from Welcome to New York (only in the director’s cut released in Europe) to the present. King of New York stands as a fairly straightforward gangster film, but New Rose Hotel — adapted from William Gibson’s cyberpunk short story — is a compelling meditation on evil and desire that leaves narrative behind for its final half hour. His previous feature, Zeros and Ones, worked similar experimental spins on spy thriller material of the spy thriller, an exercise in psychoanalyzing the spirits of Tom Clancy and 24.

The extreme ups and downs of Ferrara’s personal life have always been reflected on the screen. His debut feature, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, was hardcore porn. Still, even in the worst depths of his addiction to alcohol, heroin, and crack, he made work that grappled with the spiritual implications of these debilitating problems. Despite the sex and violence running through almost all his films, Ferrara never indulged in the ironic cruelty that defined so much ’90s American cinema. When he got clean and became a Buddhist, 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Tomasso grappled with his recovery and enlightenment.

Padre Pio is one of Ferrara’s typical odd ducks. It shows the influence of neorealism, especially in the images of workers and peasants in town squares and fields. The director often resorts to handheld cameras, but Padre Pio leaves naturalism behind entirely at times — several scenes come closer to horror. In these episodes, a single glowing light, red or blue, is cast on the action and the camera tilts wildly. Longtime collaborator Joe Delia composed the atonal score, which is dominated by the metallic clang of electric guitars. (A death scene is set to the spectral blues of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold in the Ground.”) The film’s sound design is similarly distorted and the cinematography looks cheap.

The casting of LaBeouf is the inevitable elephant in the room. The long-troubled actor embraced Catholicism last year, crediting his study for this role in a monastery. (Throughout his life, his religious identification — or lack thereof — has varied widely.) The performer has already gone through several periods of legal problems, but the most serious one is quite recent. His ex-girlfriend Tahliah Barnett (a singer who works under the name FKA Twigs) is suing for alleged sexual assault, with a trial to take place this fall. Padre Pio also casts Asia Argento in a small role as a man who confesses lust for his daughter to Pio.

It’s hard not to assume that taking on this role, and then publicly claiming a religious conversion, may be LaBeouf’s cynical bid for redemption. If so, it won’t have much impact on his public image, given that Padre Pio is bound to reach a tiny audience. Intentionally or not, the film seems to comment on the blinkered nature of celebrity. Pio’s version of religion is hermetic. Violence rages around the priest but — despite his anguish and torment — his faith can’t stop the bloodshed. (Even though he can perform miracles.) In several scenes, the film likens the social torment of Italy to Christ’s struggle on the cross — at one point there is a cut directly from a woman’s corpse to a statue of Jesus. In terms of dramatic impact, Pio’s parishioners’ attempts at using Christianity as inspiration for economic justice comes off as much more compelling than his personal struggle. After this film’s events are over, Pio would go on to be canonized as a saint. Yet the closing credits include a dedication both to the victims of the 1920 Palazzo d’Accursio massacre and the people of Ukraine.

In a 2011 biography, historian Sergio Luzzatto claimed that Pio had ties to Italian fascism in its early days. The priest eventually rejected the Communist activism we see in the film. Pio’s political allegiances, to say the least, were ambiguous; Ferrara’s version cleans the man up. Still, it’s possible that Padre Pio is a critique of a cleric who turns away from barbarity and poverty and retreats into his own mind, succumbing to delusions of grandeur while profiting from public adoration of his holiness. Trapped in self-pity, this Pio never suspects that he might not be the historical protagonist he thinks he is. The differences in performance styles between LaBeouf and the Italian actors accentuate this tantalizing uncertainty. Wildly imperfect but intriguingly ambiguous, the film’s flaws and contradictions are a virtue because its purported saintly hero is so hard to pin down.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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