Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio links religious fervour, the growth of fascism and socialism, and the Ukraine invasion, and is based on true events culminating on 14 October 1920.
Tormented historyby Alexa Dalby
You know what to expect with a cult Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) film, so you know how to watch Padre Pio. Do you feel violently assaulted? Yes. Gritty Padre Pio links religious fervour, the growth of fascism and socialism, and the Ukraine invasion, and is based on true events culminating on 14 October 1920.
The Capuchin Franciscan priest known as Padre Pio came to international fame for his religious stigmata wounds, was made a saint in 2002 (St Pio of Pietrelcina) and died in 1968.
Ferrara’s film graphically shows the torments Pio suffered along the way. Pio is played by a heavily bearded, troubled and screaming Shia LaBeouf, who, according to an interview in the Catholic Weekly, fell in love with Christ through playing the priest in the film. Make of that what you will.
The film is set in the poverty-stricken southern Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo, as the surviving soldiers return to their relieved peasant families after World War I. It is snowing miserably. and the colour palette is bleached out and melancholy. Thereafter the men return to the hard grind of agricultural work and feudal exploitation by the local landowner. The seeds of socialism grow in changing political times despite very violent opposition and beatings.
We see interrupted idyllic harvesting in sunlit olive groves and the wood-fire-lit blood-red interiors of ancient stone-built peasant homes, all shot in natural light.
The first free election after the war is won by the socialist candidate, but when the peasants (men and women we have come to know) try to instal him, they are shot down and massacred in the town square. This is a little-known fact.
Padre Pio is clearly a heartfelt and meaningful film, for both its director and lead actor. But LaBeouf as Pio only appears episodically and the largely Italian cast struggle with dialogue in English, so it’s a bit of an emotional mess.
Go and see Padre Pio if you think you’re hard enough. It’s mostly true and it’s an eye-opening watch.
Padre Pio premiered in Venice and is released on 26 January 2024 in the UK.