Padre Pio review – A well-made, but incomplete tale

Padre Pio review – A well-made, but incomplete tale

When you’re a cinephile, you don’t make a habit of missing a religious biopic about Padre Pio directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Shia LaBeouf as the title character. Say what you will about either man, but there’s no denying that both share a similar passion for their craft, and frequently deliver products that, even if not necessarily good, are very much worth watching. Ferrara never shies away from difficult material and has teamed up with a pretty incredible list of actors across his long, diverse filmography, getting career-best performances from more than a few of them. LaBeouf is a man incapable of being uninteresting, and it is largely understood that he took this role after much controversy and dove so deeply into it that he converted to Catholicism as a result. Naturally, this is not something I can personally confirm or deny, but what a story.

Yet even with all of these compelling pieces, the whole of Padre Pio is somewhat lacking. Strong ideas and a few exceptional sequences make for a true cinematic curiosity, but one that ultimately feels incomplete. Even so, there’s a lot here to celebrate.

Padre Pio aka Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was an Italian priest, saint, and mystic. If you believe this sort of thing, he’s also a stigmatist, meaning he spontaneously suffered the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. Catholics are taught about such miracles at a young age, but it is also taught that miracles are not a required part of one’s faith. A practitioner can be “saved” even if they stick only to provable aspects of their belief system. Padre Pio rides this line, delivering a biopic (Pio-pic?) that incorporates cold hard facts with only small elements of mysticism. It is in this gray area that the film is most interesting and comes closest to succeeding in its goals. Otherwise, the scattershot nature of the plot softens the overall blow and calls into question why Pio, who receives considerably less screen time than the supporting cast, gets the title card.

The film begins with a group of soldiers returning to town after Word War I. It’s a bittersweet scene, with as many families reunited as there are permanently broken. Ferrara captures the joy of those seeing their husbands and fathers for the first time in a long time, as well as the sadness of those being told that their loved ones did not survive gtheir duty. A haunting image comes in the form of a soldier exclaiming to his wife “I am still a man” as she lifts his now legless body from his transport. It’s indeed a time to celebrate, but a pall is cast over the town. They have given so much, but what have they received in return? This uneven payment for their struggles is capitalized upon by two forces: the current political power structure that seeks to maintain the status quo, and a new movement of socialism brewing amidst the townsfolk. As history has shown us many times, power is not given up easily, and this thirst for change is met with resistance — often violently.

At the same time, Pio is exploring his own faith and struggling to provide his parishioners with the guidance they seek. Times of change are times of sin, and times of sin often have people seeking judgment — judgment that Pio cannot provide, as it is God who must be the ultimate arbiter.

The film takes a thoughtful and potentially essential approach toward the political parallels to the teachings of Jesus. Socialists, Monarchists, Capitalists, and dictators all have a valid angle through which they could feasibly see Christ’s teachings as validation for their own beliefs, yet so many aspects of these contrasting ideologies are indeed that: contrasting. Padre Pio dances around these ideas in a way that provokes thought, but mistakenly avoids tackling it head on, instead juggling between two stories that never seem to connect. Namely, the life and times of Pio and the political struggles of a single Italian town.

What results is a film that feels like it’s tapped into something, but also feels like it was assembled from the cut pieces of a larger, more thorough film. The final product is functional, and often effective, but it consistently feels like two separate movies that never really converge into one.

From a craft perspective, Padre Pio provides one of the more realistic portrayals of its setting. A gorgeous use of actual locations gives the film an unmatched verisimilitude, helped by a supporting cast of mostly unrecognizable faces who feel ripped from the early twentieth century. It’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking as well as performance, worth checking out for these surface pleasures alone. And since this is an Abel Ferrara film, there are a few sequences of surrealism that, while I’m still processing what they might mean, are effective in their ability to unsettle, which may ultimately be the point.

The big question, of course, is: How is Shia LaBeouf? In a word, committed. In two words, dialed in. LaBeouf is a consistently devoted performer who clearly cares about this material, even if he’s not given much to do. But what he does do is fantastic. There’s a fire within his Pio that speaks of a man married to his faith, but doubtful of his right to be venerated above his common man. An interesting performance choice comes in the form of Pio’s lack of an Italian accent. Per Wikipedia, this was not initially planned, but LaBeouf felt it helped make his performance more honest. One can only assume its effectiveness without an accented version to compare, but what this lack of accent ends up providing is quite valuable: By being different from the rest of the cast in this one small way, Pio is subconsciously deified in the viewer. And if not deified, certainly othered. It works.

By the end, Padre Pio lands in a frustrating place. It’s well-made, but doesn’t deliver fully on being a Padre Pio biopic, a political drama, or a rumination on faith. In trying to be too much, it ends up not being anything at all. Even so, it’s worth watching, and perhaps rewatching. I’m curious to give it another go. Maybe it takes time, God willing.

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Written by Maurizio Braucci, Abel Ferrara

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Christina Chiriac, Marco Leonardi, Salvatore Ruocco

Rated R, 104 minutes

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