It’s a shame that so many have mistaken Shia LaBeouf’s struggles with personal demons as a sign that he’s a bad actor. Nothing could be further from the truth. When committed to a role, he’s quiet charismatic and, when he wants to, strikes a haunting figure. Such is the case with his performance as the canonized Pio of Pietrelcina in Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio, a dark, ambiguous, austere film that actually features very little of LaBeouf on screen. And yet his presence looms, so much so that one wishes that Ferrara put more emphasis on the beloved Catholic saint.
Instead, Ferrara focuses on the struggles of returning soldiers in Southern Italy’s San Giovanni Rotondo at the end of WWI. The film opens with a scene of combatants being welcomed back by their overjoyed families, while others receive the heartbreaking news of a loved one’s death on the battlefield.
What these soldiers find is that their home is in the grip of fear by wealthy local landowners and a fascist regime, threatening the people with unemployment, poverty, and even death. Some are happy to be exploited by the ruling class if it means steady work, but others are galvanized by socialist leaders to fight back and win an important election. This in itself is dangerous, with the fascists beating to a bloody pulp a visiting socialist speaker meant to rally their forces.
As for Padre Pio…well, he’s there to listen to their stories of hardship. This Pio is still a young man newly arrived at the Capuchin convent, a conflicted soul who in the quiet of his private chambers does battle with a taunting Devil. The scenes evoke the recent work of Paul Schrader, whose anguished, tortured male protagonists wrestle in isolation with sin and temptation. The bearded, guilt-stricken Pio grapples with his previous life, one that has the Devil mocking him for past associations with the fascists. It’s all he can do to try and make up for it now by being there for the people who are fighting against evil now, even if he will not take direct action himself.
But these scenes with Pio are few, and it’s clear that LaBeouf has thrown all of himself into the performance. He has spoken openly about his own turn to Catholicism, and the part that this film has played in that. The themes of Catholic guilt are classic Ferrara, and predictably build to a screaming match between Pio and Satan in which the former demands ” Shut the fuck up! Say Christ is Lord!!” Given the abuse allegations against LaBeouf it’s a little uncomfortable when the demon berates Pio for “the fucking countless women you’ve had your narcissistic way with”. These confrontations often feel like a meta-commentary on the actor but not necessarily of Pio. It’s undeniably powerful to see LaBeouf unburdening himself through this performance, but it feels separate from the rest of the film and that is Padre Pio‘s biggest failing. Beyond the slow pacing, raft of tough-to-identify characters, and one bizarre Asia Argento cameo as a seductive father, Padre Pio feels like two separate movies, one divine and one sociopolitical, which never converge in a satisfying way. The film is most interesting for LaBeouf, and if it has helped his life in any meaningful way then it was more than worth the effort.
Padre Pio is open in theaters now.