‘Padro Pio’ Review: Abel Ferrara Directs Shia LaBeouf In a Curious Take On a 20th-Century Saint

You might think Shia LaBeouf portraying a 20th-century Italian saint under the direction of perpetual bad-boy expat Abel Ferrara is a pretty strange prospect. But that’s just the iceberg tip of the oddities in “Padre Pio,” which, despite the American star’s casting in the title role, often appears uninterested in its own venerated ostensible subject. 

Instead, much of this awkward English-language period piece focuses on peasants’ struggle to overthrow padrone control just after the First World War. Depicting that conflict often feels beyond the modest production’s scale — and, in any case, is never meaningfully connected to the angsty histrionics of LaBeouf, who seems to be in his own separate, indulgent, semi-improvised movie. Though coherent relative to Ferrara’s last narrative feature, the impenetrable espionage tale “Zeroes and Ones,” this eccentric misfire will likely puzzle fans of his past cult favorites, while flummoxing Catholic viewers who expect straightforward religious uplift. Gravitas Ventures is releasing to 50+ U.S. markets. 

The real Padre Pio (1887-1968) was a child of peasant farmers who joined a Franciscan Capuchin friary at age 15, spending the last half-century of his life in the monastic community of San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy’s southeastern Foggia province, where he founded a research hospital among other charitable works. Several times he was examined by Vatican representatives skeptical of claims that he had developed stigmata and supernatural abilities. These investigations only increased his mystic stature, ultimately leading to his beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1999; the next year, two Italian TV biopics saw him played by Michele Placido and Sergio Castellitto. (Ironically, the newly sainted man himself had viewed television and movies as evil influences.) His international fame is such that a Padre Pio Foundation of America has existed since 1977. 

This German co-production opens with LaBeouf’s shaggy figure arriving via donkey at his new, permanent home towards the end of the war. Soldiers are welcomed back in the nearby town, some now maimed or weakened by poison gas exposure. But a young mother (Cristina Chiriac) waits in vain for her husband, who neither returns nor surfaces on casualty lists. That absence leaves her vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of an eyepatch-wearing strongman (Salvatore Ruocco) in the employ of local landowner Renato (Brando Pacitto), for whom he leads a proto-fascist repression of local peasants’ fight against continued labor exploitation.

Leading that revolt is young revolutionist Luigi (Vincenzo Crea), while much older Silvestro (Luca Lionello) hopes to change things from within, by running for a public office usually held by the gentry. When their effort succeeds at the ballot box, the entrenched powers refuse to accept it. This triggers a protest and massacre whose 1920 victims (as well as “the People of Ukraine”) this film is dedicated to.

This class strife, pitting recently acquired Marxist ideas against the moral hypocrises of privilege (a priest is seen accepting bribes from rich congregants, then blessing weapons that will kill their field toilers), is familiar from numerous prior Italian historical dramas. But while he’s lived in Rome for two decades, Ferrara still conveys something of a stilted outsider’s viewpoint in his Italy-set projects. Here, the primarily Italian cast is stuck speaking English dialogue, a weirdly colloquial ‘murrican kind that does not shrink from “ya know?” or someone worrying what will happen “if they, like, manipulate the actual voting.” The artificiality is heightened by caricature in the less sympathetic roles, and a sense of constrained resources despite acceptable design contributions. 

There’s also the problem that this is supposed to be a movie about Padre Pio, who nonetheless never quite comes into focus either conceptually or in performance. The real-life figure’s occasional political sympathies are a matter of some debate (he supported Mussolini to a point), but that goes unaddressed. So do the phenomena associated with him, with the major exception of one sequence in which he seemingly heals a crippled beggar. He seldom interacts with other characters, making his sequences feel divorced from the other events and subplots depicted.

That effect is not at all lessened by the rather incongruously cast LaBeouf, who does not attempt an Italian accent and indeed sounds like a thoroughly 21st-century suburban Yank. When not monologuing theological abstractions, he’s too often wordlessly suffering the  torments of Hell, at one point writhing and screaming in the nude. 

The actor purportedly converted to Catholicism during production. (He’d also converted from Judaism to Christianity while making 2014’s “Fury.”) But while his strenuous emoting is doubtless earnest in intent, these scenes are so devoid of narrative context, they inevitably feel like Method-y excess — hysteria for its own sake. Ferrara has dealt in spiritual crisis before in such films as “Bad Lieutenant” and “Siberia,” yet does not seem equipped to convey it as an internal state, rather than a flailingly external one. That’s a serious debit in a movie that is, at least sometimes, about a figure of renowned deep piety. 

Other jarring elements include a single scene given over to Asia Argento as a widowed man with incestuous thoughts whom Pio literally tells to STFU. There are also some odd soundtrack choices, notably a 1927 Blind Willie Johnson blues number and a newly recorded, poorly sung version of the 1930s Tin Pan Alley chestnut “Midnight, the Stars and You.” Such anachronisms aren’t plentiful enough to make any clear statement — they’re simply gratuitous quirks in a film with little palpable terra firma. 

There’s a candlelit warmth to most interior scenes, though otherwise this is one of the director’s less visually impressive endeavors, with overuse of hand-held camera striking another slightly off-key note. Ferrara’s “Pio Padre” is one more idiosyncratic chapter in a compellingly erratic filmography, and intriguing as such. But it’s hard to say that this time the strange disjunctions between premise and execution will leave most viewers with much tangible reward.

Read More About:

Source: Read Full Article