The 20th-century priest and canonized Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, affectionately referred to as Padre Pio by most, courted some controversy and gained notoriety – if you want to call it that – in some circles within his lifetime, mostly among detractors. But, gifted with the stigmata and spiritual attributes, he is revered all over the world as a pious miracle worker.
The same can’t be said concerning the movie about his life starring Transformers actor Shia LaBeouf that many were looking forward to. Reviews for the film Padre Pio are coming in as the biopic gets more attention and similar to one of Michael Bay’s blockbusters starring LaBeouf, they aren’t positive – particularly among critics that are members of the Catholic faith.
Moreover, one of them is a priest with quite a traditionalist streak. Father Isaac Mary Relyea of New York saw the film and is warning everyone else not to. He takes issue with many elements within it that ignore St. Pio’s life, showing greater concern for World War II era Italy and the rise of Mussolini, but wholly it made Fr. Relyea sick.
One instance of a nauseating scene that takes creative license is a depiction of a true account where Pio told a woman skeptical of the devil’s existence that when she gets to Hell she will believe in him. Director Abel Ferrara takes liberties with this and other parts of the story when he makes the humble priest resort to profanity.
Pio and the woman start arguing and shouting which reaches a crescendo when Padre tells her to get the F out of his quarters. Fr. Relyea refers to this ill-timed and uncharacteristic F-bomb as a “foul word which Saint Pio never would have used.” Relyea adds, “When anything comes out of Hollywood, you know it’s going to be filled with poison.”
The priest had suspicions Ferrara and LaBeouf’s Padre Pio was not going to be any good after he saw the actor’s interview with the prominent Bishop Robert Barron of Word On Fire. During his discussion with Bishop Barron, LaBeouf mentioned he was being instructed in the faith by Capuchin monks in Los Angeles, a group traditionalists like Relyea don’t trust.
“Once I saw that I said this movie is going to be bad,” Relyea recalls. He isn’t a fan of Barron either and dubbed the Bishop a heretic. He adds, “If they are the ones informing him in the Catholic faith, he’s not going to learn the truth.” Conversely, Relyea considers LaBeouf smart and sees he is figuring things out.
The film critic for Crisis Magazine Sean Fitzpatrick was even more alarmed by the movie, making it clear early in his review, “I saw Padre Pio so that I could tell people not to.” Most striking to Fitzpatrick is that the titular priest “is hardly in the film,” and not “very impressive” when he appears. Fitzpatrick gives credit to LaBeouf but plaudits end there.
Padre Pio gets bogged down in a microcosm of a socialist revolution happening in the Italian village that’s home to the Saint’s monastery. Despite the turmoil and being a man of God pledged to service, Pio is conflicted here, Fitzpatrick explains, and cloistered in the background most of the time. He celebrates Mass and receives stigmata but is frequently tempted by Satan.
“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,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “In short, Padre Pio is a mess of a movie.”
His review continues, “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.” He also laments the “overwhelmingly dark cinematography” and its shaky “jolting chaos” that, robbing the proceedings of artistic form, makes the film “nearly unwatchable.”
Ferrara found space to mock the sacraments on top of that. One instance where the devil tempts Pio is in a Confessional under the appearance of “an androgynous figure” detailing “lustful thoughts for a daughter.” Fitzpatrick had this verdict of the scene: “The lascivious nature of the confession is both offensive and distressing,” missing “the spirit of confession.”
In a second instance, the devil appears as a nude woman in a “pornographic” and “blasphemous” display. The scene is based on a real account of Pio’s life but likely did not unfold with himself naked and shrieking at the demonic presence “salaciously [licking] an image of the Blessed Virgin.” Fitzpatrick calls this scene enough justification to skip this film or even boycott it.
In that spirit, he warns curious Catholics who watched Barron’s interview, “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.”