A controversial film about the revered Catholic saint Padre Pio
Directed by Abel Ferrara. Starring Shia LaBeouf. 104 minutes
Regardless of the fame of the Capuchin friar, a movie about Padre Pio was always destined to be remembered for reasons other than its cinematic quality.
Shia LaBeouf’s decision to portray Saint Pio of Pietrelcina came shortly after the apparent ruination of his acting career.
His subsequent conversion to Catholicism certainly spoke to the seriousness with which he took the role, although the mixed reception to the film probably also stems from a feeling that it was overhyped.
This is not the Padre Pio which most viewers would have expected. Set in the aftermath of the First World War and long before the friar achieved his greatest fame, it is also not the era in which most would have expected to see being highlighted.
“I know you shed tears,” he says in prayer at the outset. “I know you continue to shed tears every day because of man’s ingratitude. You choose souls, and despite my unworthiness, you’ve chosen me.”
Over the course of this film, it is made painfully clear how Padre Pio would offer his sufferings up to God.
The film’s structure has been criticised, and deservedly so.
Far too much of its 104 minutes revolve around the oppressive local landowners and the efforts of socialist radicals to overthrow them.
There is nothing wrong with part of a biopic being dedicated to explaining historical context.
In fact, it is essential; Padre Pio and the devotion he inspires cannot be understood without first making an effort to understand Italy’s impoverished and isolated South: the Mezzogiorno.
We get a clear picture that the peasantry labour under an unjust economic and social system, but perhaps without attention being paid to the underlying difficulties which Southern Italians have in trusting one another and working together for the common good.
Unfortunately, choices by the director and circumstances outside of his control prevent the film from realising its potential.
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This is clearly a low-budget work. Indeed, had LaBeouf’s career not suffered so much damage, it is unlikely that he would have ever sought such a role.
Ferrera relies far too much on close-up shots. With a supporting cast that fails to impress, this does not achieve the desired results.
Instead, this technique detracts from the incredible physical landscape of Apulia where the film was shot, not to mention its beautiful church architecture.
Padre Pio does not feel sufficiently Italian, and the presence of American accents - aside from that of Hollywood’s LaBeouf -- is a needless irritation.
There is a good deal to be admired though, in particular the lead actor’s performance.
Padre Pio’s status as a stigmatist and the ubiquitous images of him wearing his famous gloves can possibly distract us from the broader reality of his suffering, which is captured here thanks to LaBeouf’s intensity.
From the very start, the friar is at war with evil and is suffering the scars of that ongoing battle.
Clearly, there is a deep wickedness present in this loveless place, one which is inextricably linked with the mortification endured by the young priest.
He wrestles with a demon not metaphorically but physically. Confronted with the darkest realities of sexual sin in the confessional, he fulminates fiercely against the one who has stood before him without contrition.
There are scenes here that have shocked some religious viewers, as has some of the language which is uttered by the protagonist, who in real life was well known for his temper.
Perhaps it is therefore for the best that the worst of Pio’s physical suffering is not described, and neither is the persecution that he would soon experience not from the hands of the evil one, but from within the Church itself.
With this young Padre Pio, it is mostly tears that flow forth rather than drops of blood.
This film is more Gethsemane than Golgotha; soon, he will be abandoned and denied, experiencing the pain of crucifixion alone.
Pio is filled with knowledge of the suffering to come, and yet he is still willing to bear the wounds of Christ, and for the same cause.
James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including history, culture, film and literature.
Image: from the film 'Padre Pio'
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