“From scene to scene there are powerful moments of pure cinema, but Padre Pio is too scattershot to be ranked among the best in Ferrara’s filmography. But even a minor entry has enough going for it to stay engaged.”
Leave it to Abel Ferrara to make a film about a venerated 20th century Italian saint and then do nothing with said man’s fascinating (and controversial) life story, but use a short period of it as a springboard to tell something else. Although there are certain parallels between the two storylines in Ferrara’s latest film Padre Pio, the disjointedness between the titular character’s struggle with his inner demons and the struggle between socialists and fascists in Italy in the interbellum between two World Wars is jarring. Ferrara’s forays into the darker corners of man’s soul have always been messy though, so Padre Pio is par for the course, and within that mess there is still much to love and admire, not in the least Shia LaBeouf’s intense, tortured performance as the titular father himself (when he shouts “Say Christ is Lord!” at a woman who confesses she doesn’t believe in God, you might involuntarily mouth the words yourself).
The film follows the life of Francesco Forgione, better known as Padre Pio, for only a brief time just after the end of World War I. Returning to the convent in San Giovanni Rotondo after doing military service in the war, Pio finds himself in torment over his faith. The temptations he faced outside the convent, some of which he allegedly indulged in, but also the war itself make him feel as though the Lord has abandoned him. “I’m angry a lot,” he confesses to a fellow friar. He contemplates suicide, and he is haunted by seductive women and fascist men in conversations that Ferrara stages one-on-one but are in actuality playing out in his head.
Pio is not the only one who returns from the war. Many men of San Giovanni Rotondo have fought in the war and are now trickling back into the village. Others have not survived. The devastation the war has left behind is fertile ground for new political movements, for better or worse, and the parallel story to that of LaBeouf’s Pio sees burgeoning socialist and fascist groups pitted against each other, centred around a mayoral election. Words turn into threats and then into violence, the church playing a foul role by blessing the weapons of the fascists before a final confrontation.
The two storylines do not really interact, and only by squinting might one say that Pio’s struggle between good and evil perhaps mirrors that of Italy. A missed opportunity given the actual saint’s connections to the fascists, even if these weren’t made until after the time period Padre Pio portrays. The characterizations in the story outside the convent are too minimal to truly draw the viewer in, so the film mostly relies on the audience’s (hopefully) natural disposition against the fascists to elicit emotion. Pio’s character study is far more interesting and would have been a fine subject for a full film, certainly given LaBeouf’s performance and Ferrara’s natural tendencies to look into humanity’s darkness.
Which isn’t to say that Padre Pio doesn’t captivate at times. Alessandro Abate’s cinematography, which already gave Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden its distinct look, turns out a perfect match for Ferrara’s vision; and Joe Delia, a recent frequent collaborator of Ferrara, creates an oppressive, dark score that fits especially well with Pio’s scenes of spiritual torment. From scene to scene there are powerful moments of pure cinema, but Padre Pio is too scattershot to be ranked among the best in Ferrara’s filmography. But even a minor entry has enough going for it to stay engaged.