Of the many questions one might ask when watching Abel Ferrara’s clunky portrayal of the legendary and controversial early 20th-century Italian friar, Padre Pio, the main one has to be: Why, oh why Abel, did you decide to make the movie in English?
Granted, Ferrara probably felt more comfortable working in his native tongue — as likely did Shia LaBeouf, who seems fully committed to his pious role, sporting a beard that’s bigger than the Book of Psalms itself. But the Bronx-born director has been living in Rome for a while now, and had he chosen Italian for this story of a priest caught between his alleged healing powers and his visions of Lucifer, between the rise of fascism and a growing communist revolt in a small village, this bungled drama may have seemed a little more credible.
The Bottom Line
Ferrara and LaBeouf find God but lose their way.
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Venice Days)
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Cristina Chiriac, Marco Leonardi, Asia Argento, Vincenzo Crea, Luca Lionello, Salvatore Ruocco
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenwriters: Abel Ferrara, Maurizio Braucci
1 hour and 44 minutes
Instead, Ferrera surrounded LaBeouf with a local cast that struggles with all their English lines, not only killing any authenticity but making what could have been a powerful take on Catholicism and totalitarianism play out like bad community theater. It’s been a while that the maker of such ’90s masterpieces as King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction hasn’t been fully on top of his game, but Padre Pio, despite molto sincerity and a few flashes of bravado, feels beyond the point of redemption. After premiering in the Venice Days sidebar, it could find some theatrical play in Europe and perhaps a little brotherly love among LaBeouf’s ardent followers.
It’s not entirely fair to blame Ferrara for the language issue. Countless other directors have done it since the beginning of the talkies, and Ferrara himself got away with it in the 2014 biopic, Pasoliniwhich he shot in English with Willem Dafoe and which, although flawed, felt more credible than this latest effort.
The problem here is that he’s trying to tackle a very thorny and complex time in Italian history, when the trauma of the First World War led to extreme political factions on both the left and right. It was a period of unrest during which Padre Pio was linked to members of Italy’s burgeoning Fascist movement, with some claiming he was an early supporter of Mussolini.
Such issues are handled by the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci with all the subtlety of a cartoon for preschoolers — it’s 1920s Italian politics by way of PAW Patrol. When a Fascist carabinieri hands out guns to squash a local rebellion and says, “That red flag will never be raised next to the tricolor!” you can either roll your eyes or cover your ears. The same when a young revolutionary (Vincenzo Crea) makes an impassioned speech in the town square that ends with him mooing like a cow and claiming: “We need change!”
Maybe this would have sounded better in Italian, maybe not. But the language barrier only hinders a film that clumsily delves into subjects outside Ferrara’s usual comfort zone. Politics have never been at the forefront of his cinema, and if they have they’ve often been relegated to the rampant corruption and nihilism of the mob (The Funeral), the NYPD (Bad Lieutenant) or Hollywood (The Blackout, Dangerous Game). Socialist ideals, agrarian revolutions and state fascism are much less up his alley.
More to Ferrara’s taste, and ours, are the scenes dealing with Pio’s spiritual crisis after he arrives in the village and is besieged by visions, fighting his inner demons as he tries to maintain his piety. Language is less of a problem when we see LaBeouf wrestling with different incarnations of Satan in his tiny friar’s quarters — although one scene, where the devil appears as a man dressed like a Mafioso and speaking with a Bensonhurst accent, is just plain silly.
At the very least, those sequences, captured in saturated reds and blues by cinematographer Alessandro Abate and scored with thrumming electric guitars by Joe Della, have somewhat of a Ferrara-ian vibe to them. One temptation Pio faces involves a woman who could have walked out of the director’s stripper flick, Go Go Tales. Another scene features a nearly unrecognizable Asia Argento (star of Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel), playing a father claiming to be aroused by the pubescent body of his daughter. When he confesses this to Pio, it’s too much for the padre to handle: “Shut the fuck up!” he screams, in what is surely a translation of the original Italian.
It’s as if Ferrara were making two movies at once: one a more intimate and abstract tale of a man who finds God and deals with the fallout — something that seems personal to the director and his star, both of whom have cleaned themselves up after problems. with substance abuse. And the other a misdirected attempt to contextualize Pio’s struggle amid the greater struggles that ripped across Italy and led to Mussolini’s ascension.
Neither story is handled well enough, the political stuff is much worse, and the result is a film that strays too far from Ferrara’s flock to seem believable. For a more potent vision of Christianity, try the director’s underrated Mary, starring Juliette Binoche as Mary Magdalene. And for an unforgettable look at a devout man grappling with his own sins, there’s always the great Bad Lieutenant. Perhaps the one redeeming quality of Padre Pio is that, like the latter’s fallen hero, Pio is ultimately incapable of holding back the evil forces that surround him. Pray all you want — you’ll never beat the devil.
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