Notes on “Padre Pio,” the Film

Peter Bradshaw, chief film critic for The Guardian, viewed Padre Pio at its premier in the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. He is a perceptive writer. His review  emphasizes two things. One, the film is not a biopic of Pio’s life, as many devotees of the saint expect. Pio/LeBeouf does not appear on screen that much. Bradshaw writes that LaBeouf seems to be making what amounts to a “cameo” appearance. His role accompanies the “main action,” perhaps as commentary on it or complement to it.

Secondly, the film’s primary focus of attention is not the saint. It is the overheated political climate and rural poverty in southern Italy in 1918:

It is not easy to say what kind of movie has been shaped in the edit here, and what Padre Pio’s exact role is in the dramatic events that unfold. In fact, he stands apart from these events, locked in his own world of martyred anguish.

.  .  . Soldiers return from the war, many grievously injured. Some are happy to return to the backbreaking exploitative agricultural work offered by the local landowner, a smug and entitled man with links to the army and church. He is standing for office in Italy’s new elections and smugly expects to win. But there is a wind of change in Italy: many of the young Italians are galvanised by the socialist organisers who tell them they are being exploited; the socialists are also standing for election. But the local powers have a visiting socialist speaker savagely beaten and drive him out of town. Those who side with the socialists are threatened with unemployment and poverty. And when the left win the elections, the reactionaries behave with Trumpian arrogance and murderous spite.

And where is Pio in all this? Will he intervene to stop this manifest injustice? Will he even notice it happening? Apparently not.

I have not seen the film. But the review makes plain that it is neither hagiography nor documentary. Bradshaw closes with this:

What a weird film it is, with an undeveloped, improvised feel, like a fragment or shard of something else. Yet there is a background hum there, the same background hum of evil you can hear in Ferrara’s other films about violence and obsession: an awareness of something dark and malign. It is a minor film, but interesting.

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LeBoeuf and Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara directing LeBeouf

The review directs attention to the role of politics—ecclesial and civil—in a particular period in the life of Padre Pio. His renown and attending controversies are woven into the intricacies and tumult in Italy in the post-WWI years. That singular blend of Catholic mysticism and politics that has marked twentieth century politics is examined in dense detail in Sergio Luzzatto’s Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age.  Heavily documented, the book was published first in Italian in 2007. (The 2010 English edition arrived in 2010  and won the Cundhill Prize in History the following year.)

Luzatto had been granted full access to the Vatican archives. The result is a valuable appraisal of Pio’s intricate and tendentious role in twentieth century history. It would be good to read the book before seeing the movie.

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Bradshaw’s reference above to “Trumpian arrogance” refers to director Abel Ferrara’s impetus for the film. In a muddle of leftist tropes, Ferrara presents the socialists (Italian Bolsheviks) as the good guys, distinguishing them from the reactionaries—those veterans and early Fascisti with whom Pio sympathized. Luzzato’s history is quite useful in understanding Pio’s allegiance at the time. He writes on the battle of symbols between the Socialists and the anti-Socialists:

In the eyes of the Socialists, the red flag was all the more potent in light of the extraordinary news coming from the East, filling them with hopes of “doing as they did in Russia.” As the Fascists saw it, to show contempt for the Italian flag was to profane the sacred fatherland, while the “red rag” revealed the human and political squalor of the Bolshevik “rabble.”

What is striking about the propaganda of the Bolsheviks of San Giovanni Rotundo [home of Pio’s monastery] is its fundamentally religious language. From the late nineteenth century, Socialist propaganda had often used much the same imagery as Catholic proselytizing, and “Sovietism” espoused .  .  . was rife with the local Italian traditions they knew. In their cosmology, decidedly more anticlerical than anti-Christian, the enemy was not Jesus but the priest—that is, a church establishment perceived to be aligned with conservative forces.

Speaking at the Italian Socialist Party national congress in Bologna in October 1919, one delegate declared that in Lenin’s Russia “the word has been made flesh.”

Socialists expected that the Bolshevik system would miraculously heal the world .  .  .The anti-Socialists expected their miracles to come from Padre Pio.  .  .  . Completely alien to secular culture (the percentage of active laborers in San Giovanni who could not read or write was 92 percent), the marching troops of the two armies were equally distant from Max Weber’s rational “disenchanted” modern world.

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LeBoef at Museum of Moving Images
Shia LaBeouf, in red hat, at his “He Will Not Divide Us” installation outside the Museum of the Moving Image, 1/2017


Ferrara sees the rise of Italian Fascism as a prophecy of what emerged in this country in the election of Donald Trump. It is an exalted theme in the arts: Mussolini as a harbinger of Trump. LeBoeuf shares his director’s ideological biases.

In protest of the election of Donald Trump, LeBoeuf created a tendentious installation outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Called “He Will Not Divide Us,” it was installed on January 20, 2017, the day of  Trump’s inauguration. Though it was intended to remain there throughout the Trump administration, it did not last long. It turned out to be quite divisive. The very day it went up LeBoeuf was in a tussle with a passerby and arrested. The NYPD got tired of protecting it from dissident viewers and, soon enough, ordered it down.

The New York Times covered it in “The Pitfalls of Celebrity Activism”:

Perfectly suited to social media’s ethos of self-reference, the project aimed to have passers-by look into a camera and speak the words, “He will not divide us.” The footage was streamed live, online — art as reality television — but what it ultimately intended to achieve is unclear. The piece was to be in place for the duration of the Trump presidency, although the artist maintained from the outset that the installation was not an expression of partisanship but rather a “participatory performance artwork resisting the normalization of division.”