Venice Review: Shia LaBeouf In Abel Ferrara’s ‘Padre Pio’

Shia LaBeouf plays the title character in this period piece, and his face dominates the promotional material, but the latest film from the ridiculously prolific Abel Ferrara, now into his 70s, is really more of an ensemble with a supporting cast that’s near-unknown outside Italy.

Padre Pio, playing in Venice Days at the Venice Film Festival, is more restrained than a normal Ferrara joint (notably 2019’s Siberia, with its talking fish), and the sober, borderline-amateur performances — apart from an unrecognizable Asia Argento as “Tall Man” — are more reminiscent of one of James Franco’s more earnest literary adaptations. The fiery religious comment, however, is the giveaway; Ferrara may claim to be a Buddhist now, but the Catholic church has given him a rich source of material since his genre output of the 1980s.

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Indeed, Padre Pio himself may as well be in an entirely different film, since he spends most of his scenes in the Capuchin monastery where he has been sent to serve. He has his demons, of course — and LaBeouf certainly brings a sense of lived experience — but the sinner’s life that has led him there is left vague. Instead, he is shown to have the religious fervor of the newly converted, even seeming to manifest stigmata while real or imagined conversations with Satan haunt his fever dreams.

Inspired by true events, Padre Pio’s appearance in the remote Italian village known as San Giovanni Rotondo coincides with the end of the First World War, and the community’s men are coming back from duty in pieces or not at all. Immediately they are put back to work, where they are exploited by brutal local landowners, which is the cue for a group of free-thinking students to try galvanize the locals into forming unions and voting for their nascent socialist party in the forthcoming elections (historically, the first free elections to be held in Italy).

This does not go down well with the status quo, however, and Padre Pio’s fiery quarrels with his faith act as a kind of mood music, creating an ominous tone for the final showdown when the election results come in (although the sight of a clergyman blessing a cache of guns is a more visceral hint).

Venice Film Festival: Memorable Moments 1945-1984 Gallery

It’s not immediately clear what drew Ferrara to this story or this style, although it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to label it a kind of sister piece to 2014’s biopic Pasolini (which was followed a year later by a little-seen doc, shot in Ferrara’s more traditional outré style called Searching for Pio Padre). The formalities of neo-realism actually seem to suit him, although this gives way to some unexpected, and inexplicable, nudity towards the end, as well as some very salty dialogue when the hostilities start to escalate (“I’m gonna get that flag and stick it through your ass, you hear me?”).

One might call it a comment on Donald Trump’s America, being a study of a community divided by ideology and an election that the losing side declare is rigged. That, however, would be too prosaic for Ferrara, and this is where LaBeouf comes in — his friar-as-mafioso performance (“Shut the f**k up — say Christ is Lord!” he instructs a heretic) gives Padre Pio the frisson it needs and may even see the actor replace Willem Dafoe as the intellectually fearless director’s go-to guy for all-or-nothing commitment.

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