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John AndersonJune 02, 2023
Shia LaBeouf stars in the new drama "Padre Pio.” The OSV News classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.(OSV News photo/Gravitas Ventures)

There are Catholic films, and there are Catholic films. The former are concerned with the veneration of saints and a celebration of the faith. The latter are about the recognition of evil and the impulse to confront it, embrace it and reject it as part of being part of a commonwealth of sinners. Directors Robert Bresson, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese have each accepted Christ’s invitation to address his message in their own paradoxical fashion. But few have done it in quite the memorably disturbing manner as writer-director Abel Ferrara with “Padre Pio.”

In “The Decalogue,” the great Polish-Catholic director Krzysztof Kieślowski constructed 10 modern fables, each reflecting one of the 10 Commandments in a way that explored them as moral dilemmas, rife with irony. In “Padre Pio,” Ferrara explores a chapter in the life of the sainted Italian priest, mystic and stigmatic as a vehicle for what happens when someone actively renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s (and to God that which he perceives as God’s). The press that advanced the film for its premiere at last fall’s Venice Film Festival intended to brand the movie as a reverent biopic about the problematic priest, but the critics were particularly oblivious to Ferrara’s message, which is about the abdication of earthly duties in favor of what actor Shia LaBeouf portrays as Pio’s madly obsessive and ultimately unholy relationship with God.

The screenplay by Ferrara and Maurizio Braucci (“Gomorra”) introduces Padre Pio on donkey-back, arriving to begin his ministry at the remote Capuchin monastery in Italy’s San Giovanni Rotondo. At the same time, soldiers are returning joyously from World War I to their village, despite the damage. (“I am still a man,” one soldier says to his shocked wife, who has just noticed that her husband’s arm is missing.) The wealthy elite of the town, who were officers in the war, expect life to resume the way they left it, with them in charge and the peasants working for pennies at heart-stopping labor. (One of Ferarra‘s eccentric choices, though it fits, is to score a work scene with the music of gospel singer-slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson; the allusion to southern American slavery is immediate and jarring.)

But in addition to the maimed limping into town, something else has arrived: ideas. A young intellectual, Luigi (Vincenzo Crea), lobbies the locals to vote Socialist in the upcoming elections. The landowners will not put up with it.

[Explainer: Padre Pio and the (controversial) history of the stigmata]

And Padre Pio? He is wrestling, sometimes literally, with the devil who visits him in his cell, who berates him for his lack of military service (the real Padre Pio was mustered out for health reasons), who mocks him for his sexual improprieties and who excoriates him for having written to his followers about the “butchers” running the war. Projecting his own sexual conflicts onto a mother who has confessed her erotic confusion to him, he refuses to give her daughter absolution (her daughter isn’t even there, but Pio is imagining) and accuses her of harboring a “darkness” within her that has “manifested itself in evil.” In short, Padre Pio is a character close to violence who is so tortured by his need for Christ that he deprives the people he should be consoling of simple Christian charity.

Those people, meanwhile, are being slaughtered in their streets, yet the ongoing conflict between the haves and have-nots is something to which the local priest is oblivious. LaBeouf may not be everyone’s, or anyone’s, idea of Padre Pio, but he is not playing a historical character either (though the massacre was real). He is portraying a figure who is self-indulgent in his religion, which is highly personal, fundamentalist in nature and freed from social responsibility.

[Shia LaBeouf: ‘I fell in love with Christ’ to portray Padre Pio on screen]

Padre Pio may be acting in a perversely literal Christian manner, by ignoring earthly concerns and focusing entirely on what he believes is God’s will. But is it? Ferrara, better known for “Bad Lieutenant,” “The King of New York” and some quasi-exploitative exercises like “Ms. 45,” clearly thinks that Padre Pio is delinquent in his spiritual duties by not just rejecting but abusing the world. But are politics, riots and Marxist theory really a priest’s concern?

Ferrara’s Padre Pio is not the hero of his movie, far from it. But his sainted Pio does pose moral quandaries that may require heroic effort to reconcile.

“Padre Pio” is playing in theaters and available to stream on Vudu.

More: Saints / Film

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