Thinking About Catching the new Padre Pio Film? Don’t

The new Padre Pio film isn't really about Padre Pio, and its neither entertaining, edifying, nor evangelistic.

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When Shia LaBeouf interviewed with Bishop Barron last August, he set the Catholic world talking about his conversion story and his nuts-and-bolts take on Catholicism, especially traditional Catholicism. All this was occasioned by his starring in the film Padre Pio, directed by the often-provocative Abel Ferrara. With the interest in the interview, interest arose in the film. After seeing it myself, I sat down to write this review, and the first thing that came to mind was, “I saw Padre Pio so that I could tell people not to.”

The most striking thing about Padre Pio is that it isn’t really about Padre Pio. Shia LaBeouf as the titular character is hardly in the film. And when he is, Pio isn’t very impressive as a character. Though LaBeouf gives a sincere performance, the St. Pio of Pietrelcina that we find here is a conflicted priest who is shown throughout the movie to have more interaction with the devil than with Christ. But more on that later. 

As far as the story goes, the film is curiously divided and, given its title, heavily focused on the political and social tribulations in the Italian village of San Giovanni Rotondo after the World War I armistice and the return of broken men from the front lines. The villagers are facing their first free election and, seeking to get out from under the tyranny of a wealthy landowner who keeps them in quasi-feudal employ under brutal conditions, they lean toward Socialism (and the looming shadow of Mussolini). The elders discourage them from a revolution like the Russian proletarian revolt and encourage participation in the democratic process to begin a new life. All the while, very much in the background, a quiet priest arrives at the local Capuchin monastery. 

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But the noise picks up quickly. The landowner lets loose his thugs to quell the brewing uprising. Padre Pio screams in his cell in the dead of night, plagued by demons who torment him for dodging the draft and calling the Italian military officers “butchers.” Violence breaks out in the night. Pio wrestles with spiritual isolation. The people labor under a growing tension leading up to the election. The devil relentlessly tempts Pio. The people celebrate their election victory and are massacred by soldiers in a street spattered with red blood and fallen red flags. Pio celebrates Mass with passion and receives the stigmata. 

All is grit, grime, and gore, with dim candlelight and harsh sunlight against the crumbling vestiges of an ancient Italy and the hardened hands and heads of an oppressed people. The spiritual life flickers and flares in a perverse paradox of compassion and obsession. The film closes with no salient point or purpose.

In short, Padre Pio is a mess of a movie. The disjointed nature of this film between the political turmoil and Padre Pio’s crisis of faith is stark and strange. The incoherent back-and-forth between the villagers’ political upheaval and Padre Pio’s spiritual darkness is not given any clear relation and leaves an agitated, confused, unfocused, and even unsettling feeling. Pio is a man set too far apart from the workings of the main plot, and the interweaving of these two storylines have very thin, if any, connecting tissue. 

Adding to the sense of disconnection is an overwhelmingly dark cinematography and a shaky camera that teeters on the brink of falling completely away from intentionality or art form into random, jolting chaos. While the vision may have been to capture an atmosphere of anxiety or documentary realism, the effect is a hand-held sloppiness that approaches something nearly unwatchable. 

But the real aspect of the unwatchable in Padre Pio comes from two scenes in particular. Regardless of “spoilers,” every conscientious Catholic should be aware of them. In one, the devil comes to St. Pio in confession (an odd concept) and, disguised as an androgynous figure (a rip-off of what Mel Gibson did with the devil with far greater artistic poignancy in The Passion), describes detailed lustful thoughts for a daughter. The other is a depiction of the devil tempting St. Pio, as he recounted in his letters to his spiritual advisor, appearing as a naked woman.

In the first scene, the lascivious nature of the confession is both offensive and distressing. It gives rise to Pio saying controversially, before he realizes he is speaking to the devil, “Be grateful I’m not God.” But upon sensing the demonic presence, the priest repeatedly shouts, “Shut the f*** up!” and “Say Christ is Lord!” alternatively. A deeply disconcerting confessional scene, to say the least. While it shows a rough temper on Pio which may be accurate, it is a moment that is not well contrasted with his tender side. In addition, it depicts an attitude that misses the spirit of confession and, as such, is misleading.

The second scene is not only pornographic but also blasphemous. In the scene, an explicitly nude woman repeatedly and salaciously licks an image of the Blessed Virgin before touching herself obscenely. Even if St. Pio suffered from such demonic imagery, that is no reason to recreate it for an audience. And while there may be merit in portraying a man revered for his holiness as a human being, to see Pio, who is also naked, crumpled in a corner shrieking and recoiling before this sexual apparition is grossly sensational and sacrilegious. Again, it is a scene without contextual balance in the rest of the film, and as such, it sticks out with seemingly wicked prominence.

This scene alone is more than enough to skip this film altogether—perhaps even to boycott it. Though it may be considered brief by excusers, this is a film that Catholics will seek out because of the Barron interview, and the devil himself is lurking in this devilish scene. As Pio said in a confessional scene, “You have a darkness in your heart. It manifests itself as evil.” So, too, does this film have a darkness in its heart and moments that manifest themselves as evil. 

The sparse and ambiguous representations of Padre Pio show that Padre Pio was a man who suffered sorely in his soul and who supported the suffering people in the village in his early days at Our Lady of Grace Friary by bringing them the sacraments. And although that is significant and essential, he does no more. The saint’s famous advice of “pray, hope, and don’t worry,” is nowhere to be seen or heard. 

Ultimately, Padre Pio does not come across as much of a protagonist. It is true that the film shows the saint before he became widely known and widely beloved and might suggest that Pio’s own spiritual sufferings gave him a Christlike role in taking on the sins of the world, so to speak, until he is visited by Christ Himself and takes on the Holy Wounds. 

But again, the overall impression in this highly—and even problematically—impressionistic film is that Pio was a disturbed man who appears disconnected from his community and perhaps would have done better to be more of a mentor than a mystic, being one who abdicated earthy duties in favor of heavenly ones, looking inordinately inward instead of outward. The secular characters of the film, in fact, are far more prominent as heroes in a young Socialist revolutionary and a wartime widow than the alternately tormented and taciturn Padre Pio. The overall impression in this highly—and even problematically—impressionistic film is that Pio was a disturbed man who appears disconnected from his community and perhaps would have done better to be more of a mentor than a mystic.Tweet This

While it’s no shocker that a modern film about a saint would miss the mark, the most unfortunate thing about it is the stage set by the Barron interview where Shia LaBeouf shared his now-famous attraction to the traditional forms of the Faith. Mr. LaBeouf isn’t the most articulate speaker, but his tough, street-smart presentation made him sound genuine and won him a soft spot in many hearts. His words were remarkable, no doubt, but it was noteworthy how often he used the word “feel.” To share my skeptical side, I had misgivings about how deep his understanding of the Faith ran, and whether we were listening to an emotional response of a well-meaning Hollywood eccentric which happened to fit in with the studio’s marketing objectives.

Seeing the film, the reported catalyst of Mr. LaBeouf’s conversion, and how it makes St. Pio out as a detached, divided, and relatively uninspiring figure, and that it contained graphic, immoral, un-Catholic material, my doubts return about the occasion of that conversion. Not that I or anyone can or should judge Mr. LaBeouf’s soul or his heart. I don’t, and I pray that he has indeed come firmly into the fold (he is to be confirmed in seven months). But it is hard to hear a man say that he has been moved profoundly in faith by taking on the role of a saint in a rough, slipshod movie that will cause many to sin or suffer further disillusionment about the Catholic Church. Shia LaBeouf may have found Christ in playing Padre Pio, but will Padre Pio bring people to Christ? The answer is, I believe, “No.”

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