Cinematic Cynicism: a Review of ‘Padre Pio’

Note: Robert Royal, The Catholic Thing’s editor-in-chief, will join Fr. Gerald Murray on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo (the Papal Posse) tomorrow evening to discuss the pope’s health, the U.S. bishops’ meeting this week, and several other current topics in the Church. The episode will air at 8 PM ET but will also be rebroadcast at different times (consult local listings). Programs also appear shortly after their initial appearance on EWTN’s YouTube channel.

There may never have been a more cynical attempt to market a motion picture nobody would otherwise go to see – by giving it a title (and a poster image to go with it) that has next to nothing to do with the film’s actual content.

That poster features the film’s “star,” Shia LaBeouf, who is on screen for about as long as the donkey he rides in on in an early sequence of Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio.

Padre Pio? Mr. LaBeouf impersonates the Italian saint who was marked with the stigmata of Christ, but we never see those holy wounds*** or get any sense of this character’s saintliness in a film that’s really about class war and the rise of fascism in Italy. Benito Mussolini came to power at just the time depicted in the film.

Maybe that could have been an interesting movie, but the scenes of the meetings and conversations of the would-be socialist revolutionaries and fascist bully boys of Padre Pio have all the gravitas of a low-budget telenovela. Mind you, the struggles of the poor in Italy against the entrenched upper classes were very real.

Mr. Ferrara is known for gritty moviemaking, especially in crime dramas set in his native New York City. He was born in the Bronx but moved to Italy after 9/11, reportedly because he could raise money there more easily. His films (such as Kings of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Funeral) are noted for being fragmented and unfocused, and that’s certainly the case with Padre Pio.

Ferrara’s films tend to show the cheapness of life and the ways sex and violence exploit innocence. The sex and the violence are often mistaken, one for the other.

Sad to say, the allure of disordered sex haunts Padre Pio, too. Mr. LaBeouf bares his bottom, although, to be honest, I don’t know why. This comes, if I recall correctly, just after the image of a nude woman appears on screen, although I’m also not sure why that was necessary. Probably it’s supposed to be a “temptation.” Something like that. I should be clearer about this, but there’s no way I’m wasting another hour and forty minutes to check.

Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac, who is 29 (the director is 71), may be the nude woman. The nudity (full back) seems related to Pio’s conversation with a “Tall Man” (as the script calls him) who has come to confess incestuous thoughts for his daughter. He is played by actress Asia Argento, so maybe she’s the naked lady. She has never been shy in other film roles about appearing in the altogether.

Understandably, Padre Pio/LaBeouf is angry at Tall Man. The priest shouts at him/her. He drops an f-bomb. Well, I understand the real Padre Pio sometimes spoke sharply to those whom he ministered to during Confession.

But don’t worry that with nudity and cursing that the story of Padre Pio is being degraded here. It can’t be because it isn’t really told here. This truly terrible film isn’t about its titular character at all. I’m not sure what it’s about, except maybe Ferrara’s nostalgia for a time in the past (just after the First World War) when, for some, socialism seemed the bright promise of a better future for Italy. Perhaps his Italian grandparents told him tales (or lies) about those heady days when, as Wordsworth put it about the French Revolution: “Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy! /  . . . Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”

Wordsworth would live to rue his roseate view of France’s detonation of “Reason.” Ferrara will likely never rue.

Mr. LaBeouf’s next film (he won’t be the star) will be Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, a project The Godfather director has been working on for decades. Apparently, he got sick of recutting and rereleasing his old movies and has decided to make a new one for a change. Perhaps he can help LaBeouf get his career going again because his cameo in Padre Pio won’t help.

Asia Argento, like LaBeouf, has been accused of sexual abuse; indeed, she has confessed to having sex with an underage boy. Her legal troubles are now behind her; LaBeouf’s are not, and he’ll soon be in court defending himself.

Much has been made of LaBeouf’s conversion to Catholicism as a result of appearing in Padre Pio. It’s not for me to doubt his sincerity, although I think it sensible to offer caution.

It seems odd that someone with such a checkered past has had his come-to-Jesus moment making a film directed by a cradle Catholic who has no enduring interest in the faith or belief in Jesus Christ. You may say that stranger things have happened, and that may be so.

But Shia LaBeouf, who is also a performance artist, is a classic “method” actor. He’ll submerge himself in whatever role he is playing. The point is to become the character. Completely. And to stay in character from the first reading of the script until, perhaps, the last interview in promotion of the film upon its release.

I ask every reader of this very negative review of a movie, that’s not about what you think it should be about, to pray for Mr. LaBeouf – that his conversion has come from the Holy Spirit and will sustain him all the days of his life.

King David had an insight into this – a notable moment of bitter self-appraisal, in Psalm 146:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Princes and actors. . .and writers too.

As you’d expect, the film has an R rating. Don’t take the kids. As if you would.

***A reader writes in to correct me: In fact, in the film’s very last scene, we do see, faintly, the stigmata form on one of Padre Pio’s hands. The scene is shot in such darkness that my 75-year-old eyes missed it the first time.


You may also enjoy:

Ines A. Murzaku’s Padre Pio and Mother Teresa: Jubilee Patrons

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Of Tattoos and Stigmata

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.