ROME — Abel Ferrara, whose New York exploitation films of the 1980s and 1990s delved into the soulless evils of drug addiction, corruption and sexual violence, pays homage to one of the most known and most revered in Italy in his latest film, “Padre Pio.
That the film, which stars Shia LaBeouf and which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival next week, confirms a change of pace for the cult director is an understatement, one that Ferrara, 71, attributes to a decade of sobriety and a new life in Italy.
“Once we quit drugs and alcohol, we started to see a different way of life, to live a different life,” the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ director said in an interview in his new hometown of Rome. “I think it’s more just about trying to play our game well.”
The film recounts a particular moment in the history of Italy in the 20th century and of Padre Pio, the mystical Capuchin monk best known for having exhibited the “stigmata” wounds of Christ: he was bleeding from the hands, feet and sides. Padre Pio died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002 by Saint John Paul II, becoming one of the most popular saints in Italy, the United States and beyond.
Ferrara’s treatment is no biopic and frankly ignores some of the juiciest bits of the Padre Pio saga, which involved a dozen Vatican investigations into alleged alliances with women, alleged financial irregularities and doubts about the stigmas. In their place, Ferrara weaves a parallel narrative about the beginnings of fascism in Italy that is, unexpectedly, very relevant today.
The film takes as its starting point the arrival of Padre Pio in a Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo, a miserable town in southern Italy, just as his soldiers were returning home after the First World War. The city was almost feudal, with the Catholic Church and wealthy big landowners trying to retain power amid early suspicions of the post-war socialist movement in Italy which saw factory unrest and peasant strikes.
This social unrest erupted into a little-known police massacre of peasants in San Giovanni after the Socialists won the local elections of 1920, the results of which were denied by the entrenched and church-supported ruling class. When the victorious socialists tried to hang their red flag on the municipal building and install their mayor on October 14, 1920, the police were on the spot, shots rang out and 14 people were killed and 80 injured. For Ferrara, the “massacre of San Giovanni Rotondo” helped predict the spread of fascism in Italy.
Ferrara, who has lived in Italy for about two decades, started making the film five years ago, long before the Jan. 6 insurrection in his native United States, in which supporters of President Donald Trump took storming the US Capitol after refusing to respect the results of the 2020 election, or the rise of the far-right Italian Brotherhood party in his adopted country. The Brotherhood of Italy, which has neo-fascist roots, is leading the polls ahead of next month’s Italian legislative elections. Add to that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Ferrara sees history repeating itself.
“When January 6 comes around after you’ve been working on this movie for five years, it’s like, okay, the election is great until you lose,” he said.
The film is dedicated to the victims of the 1920 massacre as well as to the Ukrainian people. Why? “What I’m watching is a replay of World War II. Seventy-five million people died 70 years ago. It’s like yesterday. It is happening right before our eyes,” he said.
The context of the film, he says solemnly, is: “You are watching the end of the world.
Ferrara’s interest in Italian history, Catholicism and his fascination with Padre Pio are nothing new: Bronx-born Ferrara was raised Catholic and introduced to both Italy and the saint by his great -father, who was born in a town not far from the birthplace of Padre Pio. Pietrelcina.
These interests emerged in Ferrara’s more recent films, including “Pasolini” which paid homage to the scandalous life and violent death of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and premiered in Venice in 2014; and “Mary”, about an actor (Juliette Binoche) playing Mary Magdalene in a film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice in 2005.
“Pasolini” and “Padre Pio” relied heavily on the diaries, writings and documentation of their subjects, and Ferrara first made a documentary on the life of the saint before deciding to focus on the particular period of his arrival in San Giovanni Rotondo, his doubts about his faith and the events surrounding the massacre of 1920.
“I thought the confluence between the massacre and its stigmata was happening in the same place at the same time… I mean, how could you not make a movie about it?” said Ferrara.
But Ferrara is well aware that his early genre work – he did pornography, revenge rape, the 1993 cult classic about a corrupt, drug-addicted cop “Bad Lieutenant” and his previous “The Driller Killer”, on a New York artist who kills random people with an electric drill – gave him a certain reputation.
“Given the list of movies I’ve done, you’d wonder,” Ferrara admits. But he said church officials and Capuchin friars who advised on set were fully behind the project and its star, LaBeouf, who admitted to being an alcoholic and was accused of abuse by a former girlfriend. LaBeouf spent four months in a California monastery preparing for the role, Ferrara said, and said the chance to play “Padre Pio” was a miracle for him personally.
“It’s just that these cats have this optimistic outlook,” Ferrara said admiringly of Church. “Don’t judge someone on their worst moment.”