Padre Pio: no sin deserves the penance of this unholy mess

Abel Ferrara’s latest stars Shia LaBeouf as a saint – and that’s not even the most preposterous thing about it.

Padre Pio (2022)
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.

The Lord – or at least Abel Ferrara – works in mystifying ways in the aggravatingly incoherent Padre Pio, a movie so draining that after a while, the fact that it stars Shia LaBeouf as a saint doesn’t even seem that funny anymore. It’s partly a film about the nightmarish faith-based torment of the titular stigmata-bearing friar, and partly a ploddingly earnest reconstruction of a 1920 massacre in the nearby village of San Giovanni Rotondo – and abandon hope all ye who wish to learn how the one relates to the other.

Pio (LaBeouf) arrives at a mountain monastery on a bedraggled donkey under a sky fried by a big pale sun that Ferrara likes to return to frequently, usually matching it to one of composer Joe Delia’s signature electric guitar kerrangs. Inside, nightly visitations from Pio’s literal demons begin – some of which suggest Pio wasn’t always big on celibacy, allowing Ferrara to shoehorn in some naked female flesh. LaBeouf writhes, gibbers and shouts “Say Christ is Lord!” a lot.

In the poverty-blighted village below, which is run by the sneering landowner class personified by baby-faced bigwig Renato (Brando Pacitto), soldiers returning from the Great War are greeted by their weeping wives (the role of women here is to weep and worry about their men). But not every man comes back. The most photogenic wife, Giovanna (Cristina Chiriac), remains husbandless and must stoically return to working for Renato for a pittance to support her children. Little wonder she becomes attached to the local socialist group, led by firebrand Luigi (Vincenzo Crea), that is running in opposition to the proto-fascist, church- and military-backed landowners in the upcoming election. We understand all this despite the indecipherable, accented English mainly because men in helpful uniforms (red bandanas, military garb, priestly vestments) keep having extremely obvious contretemps and setting fire to one another’s flags.

Meanwhile, up at the monastery, some guy confesses to incestuous, paedophilic desires, which makes Pio very angry. That the guy – probably a demon – is played by Asia Argento is inexplicable: the cross-gender stunt-casting does nothing except provide an unfortunately timed image of Shia LaBeouf bellowing in spittle-flecked rage at a woman. Beyond such garish flourishes, Ferrara appears entirely credulous of Pio’s authenticity, even implying his stigmata may have been a sacred response to the massacre of the socialists, which is a bit rich considering Pio’s well-known later fascist connections. But wishing the film challenged Pio-devotee orthodoxy a little more is futile: to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, Padre Pio is not a blasphemy, and it likely won’t be a blast for you either.