Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), depending on what day of the week you ask, might have this critic’s vote as the greatest movie of the 21st century so far. Scorsese’s reverence for the convictions of those Portuguese Jesuit missionaries effuses a difficult story that is more Gospel than hagiographical (though the characters are fictional), climaxing with the main priest recanting his Christianity through an act of faith. The paradox of the Christian faith has never been depicted with such beauty before.
There was reason to hope Padre Pio could have been Abel Ferrara’s Silence, albeit a sliver more fucked up: a drama about sincere religious people, taken seriously, by one of our more interesting active auteurs. Apparently, Scorsese used up all of that artistic formula. Ferrara’s newest film, the drama Padre Pio, disgracefully shrivels in the presence of Silence.
The film’s eponymous saint, Pio of Pietrelcina, was an enigmatic and controversial Italian Franciscan born four years after Benito Mussolini. Much like Scorsese’s upcoming film about Jesus, a biopic on Pio from the likewise controversial Ferrara, on paper, is a match divined by God’s self. Pio is most known for being the most famous public figure to have (claimed) to receive the stigmata—the wounds of Christ’s passion. He also, according to his followers, often performed miracles (only one of which is shown here) and was apparently blessed with the gift of bilocation? For a saint, he also had more than his share of crassness and bluntness.
Was Pio a liar or a saint? A holy man or a crazy person? Ferrara doesn’t seem interested in these questions or basically anything else that makes the historical Pio an interesting figure. Beyond the single miracle portrayed here—an uncharacteristic healing episode in which Shia LaBeouf’s take on the character isn’t concerned with his own internal spiritual state, but with the suffering of his fellow neighbors—almost the entirety of LaBeouf’s performance takes place within the confines of San Giovanni Rotondo, where the historical saint lived at the time he received the stigmata. (More on LaBeouf later.) It’s here where Pio screams in his room and is tormented by Satan.
Pio also, like some of the more conservative members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, weaponizes the sacraments against those seeking pastoral care and reconciliation. In the film’s strangest scene, Asia Argento, playing a character named “Tall Man,” seeks the Sacrament of Penance for feeling aroused by his young daughter. The casting decision, as far as I can see, adds nothing. I wouldn’t have even realized Argento was playing a man if I didn’t pause the film on Amazon, which shows the cast, to grab a drink. Pio seems to deny him the sacrament (he gives mixed signals here) for a lack of contrition…but, then, the saint projects his own sexual desires onto the situation.
The rest of the film, including most of the more engaging portions, happens with the saint sidelined in a narratively disconnected plot about a group of socialists striving to improve the lives of the people in the small town against the rising authoritarian tides of proto-fascism. This plot, shot with an entirely Italian cast speaking in English on location in Italy, climaxes with the Massacre of San Giovanni Rotondo where 14 people were killed and more than 80 injured. (There is no good reason why this film is in English, by the way.) This fascist killing spree is edited with Pio’s reception of the stigmata, complete with the hand of God comforting his shoulder.
The two threads never work together. Ferrara seems to think they do, though. “There’s not a political story and a Padre Pio story. He’s a member of that community. He’s feeling it. He knows what’s going on, and he’s interconnected with those people. And those people are very interconnected to him,” the filmmaker said in an interview.
The director’s statement is confusing for many reasons. First of all, Pio seemed to have fascistic sympathies himself (not much is known), and according to one scholar, even blessed the flag of a local anti-communist party before an election. There’s no debate that Pio was ardently anti-socialist, which makes Ferrara’s statement all that much confounding. If LaBeouf’s Pio has any clue about the happenings of the town, he’s a coward for not even offering spiritual support for the regular folk let alone for not tangibly aligning himself with the oppressed. (And he certainly doesn’t show any signs of bilocation here!) There’s even a scene in which another friar is shown blessing the proto-fascists’ guns, unfortunately and unintentionally recalling the real-life event in which Pio blessed the flag. The editing of the two final sequences, the massacre and the stigmata, are likely meant to suggest he feels the weight of the people’s suffering but instead just doesn’t make sense given the political revisionism going on here. I’m not one to normally get irritated by biographical-fictional disparities, but, in this case, the changes turn a potentially fascist sympathizer into a socialist sympathizer.
I wanted to be more charitable by assuming something else was going on here, something only represented by earthly politics and in reality reflective of aggrandizing spiritual themes. But the casting of LaBeouf, who is himself shrouded by criminal controversies, brings the political to the forefront. He converted to Catholicism after filming—a crazy act of performative redemption, given how cowardly his Pio appears—and has treated the film’s release as a redemption tour, garnering good faith with many US Catholics. His most notable Catholic celebrity appearance was on Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube channel, where he spoke of his former sins in obscurity and, like the character his Pio refuses penance, shows little indications of actual contrition.
The politics are not part of what’s happening; they are what’s happening. And that’s precisely why I can’t forgive Ferrara for his whitewashing of Pio. It seems Ferrara really wanted to make a movie on Saint Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador who boldly opposed the El Salvador dictatorship, but was beaten to that by director John Duigan’s fantastic 1989 film Romero (with Alfonso Cuarón on the second unit)!
Padre Pio, ironically, is too reverent and uncomplicated for a biopic on the canonized firestarter.
dir. Abel Ferrara
Available for rent on digital platforms.