Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio, a biographical drama, attempts to juxtapose the anguish of the renowned Capuchin friar and stigmatist, Padre Pio, with the awakening socialist movement in Southeastern Italy. Ferrara’s cinematic endeavor, Padre Pio, unveils two parallel narratives unfolding in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. One of them delves into the struggles of Padre Pio in his early 30s, grappling with physical and mental turmoil, while the other unveils the fervent socialist movement fighting for their rights amid a nation devastated by the aftermath of war.
Born Francesco Forgione in 1887, Padre Pio’s unwavering dedication to Christ stemmed from his early exposure to biblical tales. His love for Christ nurtured his faith and unyielding devotion. However, his life was plagued by the relentless presence of his inner demons, manifested through a series of ailments ranging from gastroenteritis to typhoid fever, accompanied by psychological afflictions. On the one hand, Padre Pio was blessed with a constant relationship with God. He had profound encounters with the divine through his passionate belief and deeply held commitment to Christ. Padre Pio received comfort, direction, and a clear sense of his life’s purpose during these holy experiences. The devil’s agony, on the other hand, afflicted Padre Pio’s spiritual existence. As he endured constant temptations, gloomy visions, and spiritual attacks, Padre Pio experienced great interpersonal difficulties. The devil’s wicked influence attempted to disrupt his spiritual journey, testing his willpower and putting his faith to the test. This internal conflict became a part of Padre Pio’s persona, influencing his spiritual practices and capacity to sympathize with the sorrows of others.
Just as depicted in the film, the devil took on the form of a therapist and relentlessly discouraged Padre, accusing him of being a coward for not going to war. These encounters represented Padre’s internal conflicts manifesting and tormenting his soul. The devil would sometimes appear as an androgynous figure, attempting to undermine the existence of God, and other times as a malicious naked lady, disrespecting a picture of the Virgin Mary. Despite carrying the heavy burden of this darkness within his mind, Padre Pio remained steadfast and sought help from his fellow friars in the community. Towards the end of the film, he even felt the presence of Christ, comforting him by placing a hand on his shoulder.
Despite entering the Capuchin order at a tender age and receiving a proper education, his physical well-being remained elusive, hindering his complete devotion to God. On numerous occasions, he witnessed the devil’s torment of his soul, causing distress among his fellow friars. The friars in the community witnessed his myriad health problems, his ecstatic states, and even instances of levitation several times. Seeking solace, the Padre was sent to a mountain convent, but the treatment proved ineffective, prompting his return to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916.
While World War I raged, Padre Pio relocated to San Giovanni Rotondo, attracting crowds seeking his advice and forgiveness. His presence alone was enough to bring in the devotees from all around the world. During this time, Padre Pio began exhibiting the wounds associated with Christ’s crucifixion, also known as “stigmata.” Swiftly, he ascended to a position of prominence, renowned for his miraculous healing power, bilocation, clairvoyance, supernatural abilities, and even levitation. As the country languished in the grips of war, Padre Pio became a beacon of hope and a spiritual guide for the masses. His legacy endured until 1968, when, at the age of 81, Padre Pio took his last breath in San Giovanni Rotondo, succumbing to his prolonged battle with deteriorating health.
In the 2023 film Padre Pio, alongside the friar’s inner turmoil, we witness a significant historical moment—the rise of socialist movements in Italy. Post-World War I, the soldiers who returned alive joined forces in the socialist cause, yearning to bring about a change in the nation’s dire state. However, the ascendant fascist forces obstructed their path. The socialists endured unfathomable suffering at the hands of the government because of their ardent determination to overthrow the status quo. As they valiantly challenged the established forces and exposed the abuses and injustices experienced by the working people, they endured physical and psychological torture. Undeterred, these rebels vehemently protested against the exploitation of workers who, having endured the horrors of war, now faced capitalist oppression upon their return. As the protest gained momentum and the socialists gained an electoral victory, the police responded ruthlessly, ending their triumphant ceremony in San Giovanni Rotondo by gunning down eleven socialists, causing a bloodbath. The movie “Padre Pio” aims to demonstrate the prevalent existence of evil in many forms by tying together historical events and Padre Pio’s inner struggles. It seeks to make comparisons between the internal conflicts fought in the depths of one’s psyche and the external manifestations of oppression. The movie depicts the suffering of workers who are oppressed by low wages, causing them significant hardship while barely being able to make a living. The character of the Padre is shown as deeply understanding and sympathizing with the struggles of these ordinary individuals, symbolizing faith that is tormented by the ongoing sufferings inflicted upon the people. Through Padre Pio, the film portrays the existence of God as someone who witnesses the injustices and tyranny endured by the common people in the country and stands out as a support in the life of broken people.
Despite its attempts to inspire terror and uneasiness through the image of evil, the film Padre Pio disappoints audiences by falling short in both its depiction of religious themes and its societal critique. The film mainly relies on Shia LeBouf’s outstanding performance, yet it fails to give him the opportunity to completely inhabit the role of Padre Pio. As a result, the picture has a mediocre presentation, leaving spectators dissatisfied and unengaged. Even the apparently tortured and wicked demon in the form of a naked lady presented in the film fails to elicit any true sense of terror. The film’s attempt to delve into the depths of Padre Pio’s spiritual sufferings as well as the simultaneous political context of Italy amid the emergence of socialist movement, is weak and unconvincing. Instead of diving into the complexity and nuances of these interrelated storylines, the film skips the opportunity to display a bridge between these two occurrences.
Furthermore, the film fails to depict the holy zeal and significance that surrounded Padre Pio throughout his lifetime. His capacity to heal, his stigmatic scars, and his alleged supernatural talents are just briefly mentioned, with no meaningful analysis or depth. As a result, the film’s religious approach is inadequate and fails to leave an effect on spectators. The representation of the socialist movement and the authoritarian powers that wanted to suppress it is shallow and fails to adequately convey the seriousness of the working class’s fight. The important incident of the police shooting of the socialists at San Giovanni Rotondo is presented with little emotional depth or intensity, undermining its relevance within the wider story.