Ever since he moved to Rome, Abel Ferrara has focused much of his directorial output on the land of his family: Pasolini, Piazza Vittorio, Tommaso, Zeros and Ones. His latest film takes this a step further, examining one of the holiest figures to any Italian — the modern saint, Padre Pio. Though Pio’s initial heyday was in the 1920s, Italian children to this day are taught about his stigmata, his healing miracles, and the hospital — the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza — that he built with the funds that he raised.
Shia LaBeouf, a very Ferrara choice, stars as the titular Franciscan Capuchin friar who wrestles with both the holy (or demonic) voices in his head as well as the local townsfolk of the small village of San Giovanni Rotondo. However, Padre Pio quickly pivots to scenes of the working lives of those in the countryside, many of whom are still suffering from internal wounds from the Great War and plan to vote Socialist in the upcoming election. The local government, backed by the Fascists and the Vatican, will not accept a Socialist victory, leading to a massacre that, Ferrara says, is essential background to Pio’s sainthood. Since Ferrara’s family hails from the neighboring Pietrelcina, it’s easy to see Padre Pio as one of the director’s most personal movies. Ferrara recently spoke to me about the film from his apartment in Rome.
I re-watched a couple of your location-based documentaries: Mulberry Street, Piazza Vittorio, and Chelsea on the Rocks. Location has always been pretty important to you. I’m curious if you decided to shoot Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo?
Yeah. Well, you know, we’re very close to San Giovanni Rotondo. Sant’Angelo is near and it’s more like San Giovanni Rotondo was at the time, so it was very real. The monasteries were the places he was in, you know, the mountains. The physical nature of the place is on top of a mountain overlooking the Adriatic on the east coast of Italy, right? Like the Achilles heel of Italy, basically. Very specific, you know. And people we’re using and the places we’re using — it’s something we always try to do in the features. When we did Pasolini, we had the opportunity to do that. We did the Strauss-Kahn movie [Welcome to New York], and we did that.
So it was very important to you to be able to shoot with some sort of location fidelity.
Yeah. You know, especially going back a hundred years… you’re trying to get the fidelity of everything. The objects, the place — it’s a lot easier in Italy to go back in time, you know, especially there. I mean, certain things are just still right there, so it’s not like we’re struggling to try to recreate a hundred years ago.
I’m curious if you and your DP [Alessandro Abate] were working with any kind of visual references for shooting those provincial or pastoral scenes, or perhaps within the monastery itself?
We’re going with the reality that they didn’t have electric lights, so that was basically our reality — candles, fireplace. You know, the light through the window. The light there in general is spectacular, you know what I mean? In Italy in general it’s a very specific and magical quality. So we’re just going without lights. That was the design.
What was it like working with Alessandro in general?
I did Napoli, Napoli, Napoli with him. So I worked with him before. He’s brilliant, he’s Italian. He’s in style with the guys that I very much connect with. He shoots [the film] himself; he’s a cameraman. He likes to work fast; he’s gifted. He sees the light, he sees what’s going on. It’s special, right?
The score is composed by your friend, Joe Delia. But there’s one particular scene in which there’s a peasant dying, probably from leftover wounds from the war, and he’s being exhausted and worked to death. And there’s a great Blind Willie Johnson song (“Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”) that comes up. Were you having any particular conversation about using that particular song?
Yeah, we’re always talking about where the music comes from. We were locked into the period big time. You know, I just felt it’s the same situation: working for the man out in the fucking fields, right? So if it’s Mississippi or it’s fucking Apulia, I mean, what’s the difference? So it was the same kind of period. That feeling of oppression, it’s what the blues is about. We were using the same song from the same period there. That was a folk song from that region, that same kind of feeling. Incredible, you know?
You tell Pio’s story through his historical circumstances. I think we spend more time with the peasants and the events leading up to that massacre. Was there any time in which you wanted to tell this story as a more standard biopic?
No. I mean, we’ve done three of these movies, you know. Pasolini was about the last 36 hours of his life. We did the Strauss-Kahn story, which was just a month, just the event. The stigmata doesn’t exist outside of the social-political event. Right. with Pio, it’s his empathy, his compassion. He’s feeling it. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. It wasn’t a miracle, you know what I’m saying? It was a result of the horrific circumstances centered around the first free election in Italy. The Russian Revolution just happened. The Spanish flu was a nightmare. He’s feeling it, you know?
I was rewatching the 2015 documentary that you did on Pio. There’s a moment where you realize what this movie’s going to be. You’re talking to a lot of people in San Giovanni Rotondo and you’re making that connection of hearing that that massacre happened around the same time [as Pio’s stigmata].
I mean, it’s outrageous, you know? It’s like, if you don’t make a film about that, whatcha you gonna make it about?
I’m curious if you had any kind of more exclusive access whenever you were doing your research for Padre Pio — if you were able to perhaps go back and talk to the people in the village who knew him.
I mean, we went full tilt boogie. These people have been researching both things. Pio has been researched to death, but you don’t have to research him, because he wrote letters. He was a brilliant writer. He’s so eloquent. He had the ability to express through his writing ability.
The massacre has been researched, but it’s not really taught in the Italian schools. You know, it’s a surprise to a lot of Italian people. I don’t know why [that is]. To me, it’s like Bunker Hill or Fort Sumter or something. I don’t get it… but you know we had a lot of guys before us who did a lot of work to help us.
Why do you think Italians don’t know about the massacre?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Because it’s just the nature of how the Italians teach fascism. You know, how they teach the position in the war, the Vatican’s position with Mussolini… all that stuff. It’s delicate here, you know?
How has the church’s reception to the movie been? I know you showed them an early cut.
They love it. They love it. They love it. Showed it to the Vatican; they love it. We showed it to the monks; they love it. They get it. They think we did great.
When it comes to the existence of miracles, for example, or, supernatural phenomena, I feel like modern audiences take a much more cynical position than audiences might’ve taken to, say, a Rossellini film.
An audience can take a cynical position, you know what I mean? But the people in San Giovanni living in South Italy in 1919 — first of all, there were no non-believers, right? There wasn’t even a concept of that. The position of miracles and magic and of the other world going on outside of the world that we could see and touch and feel was very, very real. But at the same time, you’ve got the Russian Revolution, where they line priests up against the wall and just shoot them. They’re like destroying the church. And they did it. They did it overnight. So you got that reality going. So, the south of Italy is, you know, a witchy fucking place, man.
I was reading an interview with you from last year where you talked with Mike Bilandic. You mentioned you were working on an autobiography — how’s that process?
Yeah, I’m writing a book. I dunno if it’s so much an autobiography. More of a “the things I’ve seen.” It’s called Scene, actually. S-C-E-N-E. It’s like scenes in a movie or, like, “what I’ve seen.” Yeah. I’m getting there. I have my Padre Pio moments — you know, the nights of doubt. But no, we’re getting there. It’s almost done.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.