Padre Pio, Abel Ferrara
Credit: Venice International Film Festival
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Spotlight

Padre Pio — Abel Ferrara

June 3, 2023

Disclaimer: It’s important to acknowledge the severity of the accusations of abuse made against both Shia LaBeouf and Asia Argento, and clarify that while some of the language used in this review might not do justice to the weight of these allegations, no word written here is intended to downplay abuse or sexual violence of any kind, help whitewash anyone’s image, or contribute to a public redemption campaign that may or may not be sincere.

Abel Ferrara’s late style has been marked by a preoccupation with the end. Last year’s oneiric cyberthriller Zeros and Ones traced pandemic-era paranoia onto a crumbling dystopia, while his 2020 drama Siberia imagined the apocalypse as a miasma of bad memories, nightmares, and terrifying visions. Even his kaleidoscopic Pier Paolo biopic Pasolini eschewed convention by focusing on the final days of the iconic Italian writer and filmmaker, while refracting his life through the prism of his art — an approach not dissimilar to Paul Schrader’s take on the life of Yukio Mishima in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Earlier in his career, the one-time porn director explored themes of addiction and redemption through gritty cult films such as Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, and The Addiction — tales of damaged people navigating a ruthless, seemingly amoral world — before augmenting his exploitation sensibilities with techno esoterica, starting with the William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel in 1998.

His latest outing, Padre Pio, could be characterized as a return to a pre-tech-anxiety period for the Bronx-born filmmaker, who moved from New York to Rome two decades ago, fed up with the rapid gentrification of his beloved city, as well as continuing difficulty with finding funding for his projects in America. While he never abandoned the unflinching interiority of his early films, there was a noticeable outward turn around the beginning of the new millennium. Ferrara’s characters no longer just grappled with their inner lives and immediate surroundings, but saw their turmoil projected onto the world at large. Padre Pio trims that scope, although the grim sense of foreboding that has been a staple of his late-career work remains very much intact.

At the end of World War I, the young friar Padre Pio (Shia LaBeouf) arrives in San Giovanni Rotondo, a small community in Apulia, Italy. The village is about to hold its first free elections, and tensions are high: the socialists are split on the question of reform vs. revolution, while reactionaries — made up of landowners and generals, aided by the police — scheme to remain in power by any means necessary. Padre Pio’s eccentric behavior and emotional instability put him at odds with the religious establishment, but his words and open vulnerability bring comfort to the afflicted, as the villagers struggle with social unrest, poverty, and illness. But while he manages to offer comfort to others, he himself is tormented by his troubled past, manifesting as visions of the devil, who warns Pio of the coming horrors that will befall the world. As the political violence begins bleeding into the streets, so too does the priest’s spiritual anguish intensify, before things, inevitably, take a turn for the tragic.

Ferrara loves complicated characters, both on the screen and off. Be it Harvey Keitel’s titular Bad Lieutenant, a demented, drug-snorting philanderer searching for redemption, or Ms. 45‘s Thana (played by the late Bad Lieutenant co-writer and close friend of Ferrara’s, Zoë Lund, who was once described as the queen of drug users by Richard Hell), a rape victim turned ruthless avenging angel, the now-sober writer-director has always felt an affinity for people on the margins of morality. And given his own struggles with drug abuse, and his hard-won, decade-long sobriety, it might not come as a shock that he was drawn to LaBeouf, who, when approached for the role, was on an acting hiatus and receiving inpatient treatment, following accusations of abuse and sexual battery made against him by his former partner FKA Twigs. According to the director, LaBeouf “connected very deeply with Pio’s journey in the film,” and if the actor’s newfound Catholicism — which he credits with helping him get sober, amongst other things — is any indication, it seems that he saw quite a bit of himself in the controversial, but widely revered, cantankerous mystic. Ferrara, for his part, glosses over the more sordid aspects of Pio’s life, which include allegations of sexual misconduct and mishandling of church funds, and opts for a more abstract approach, paralleling Pio’s crisis of faith with the looming specter of fascism, which would soon bring with it the horrors of totalitarianism, genocide, and war.

Padre Pio is the work of a dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast, far beyond being concerned with pleasing an audience. However, his impressionistic take on the Catholic saint’s life and the largely forgotten massacre that took place in close proximity to him once again brings the audience face to face with the apocalypse. According to Ferrara, “You’re looking at the end of the world,” one not mediated by computer screens and sprawling information networks, but good old-fashioned moral decay and 20th-century authoritarianism. We see just how far things have deteriorated in this small town when Asia Argento — whose alleged sexual assault of actor Jimmy Bennett is also worth noting here — cameos as the “Tall Man,” a depraved character who confesses to lusting after his daughter, to which he is scolded by an irate Pio telling him to “shut the fuck up” and “say Christ is Lord,” before being angrily sent away. It’s a bizarre scene that, like much of the film, flirts with the ridiculous. LaBeouf is characteristically dedicated to the role, but the supposed “ego death” that he claims to have gone through since his allegedly abusive behavior has come to light either hadn’t yet come to pass at the time of filming, or simply didn’t translate into a less self-obsessed performance. And while the thematic connections between Pio’s punishing spiritual journey and the tempestuous political climate of post-WWI Italy are easy to light upon, the two threads never really coalesce, mainly because the fairly dull political plot dominates the runtime, while Pio himself is relegated to the background, mostly seen either praying, crying, or yelling inside his cramped living quarters. The most egregious decision, however, was to have the Italian supporting cast deliver their dialogue in English, robbing their scenes of much-needed authenticity, and imbuing them with a clumsy, almost amateurish feel.

But even with its flaws, Padre Pio can be recognized as an admirable and deeply personal effort — for both its director and its star — that still packs the occasional cinematic punch, as the flashes of profundity in LaBeouf’s performance, and Ferrara’s raw, rough-and-tumble vision are still good for a few intriguing and intense sequences. For example, the scene of a visibly tortured Pio giving communion to his congregation is intercut with socialists being gunned down by the carabinieri, boldly echoing the baptism scene in The Godfather (coincidentally, LaBeouf is slated to appear in Coppola’s next feature, Megalopolis), while shots of their dead bodies are juxtaposed with images of Christ on the cross, to especially thorny effect. Padre Pio will likely make for an interesting, if inessential, viewing experience for anyone who has been able to tune into the eccentric wavelength of Ferrara’s late period, but anyone looking for a sturdier take on faith, guilt, and redemption would do well to (re)watch Bad Lieutenant instead.

Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.