Producers: Philipp Kreuzer and Diana Phillips  Director: Abel Ferrara   Screenplay: Abel Ferrara and Maurizio Braucci   Cast:  Shia LaBeouf, Cristina Chiriac, Marco Leonardi, Asia Argento, Vincenzo Crea, Luca Lionello, Salvatore Ruocco, Brando Pacitto, Stella Mastrantonio, Federico Majorana, Michelangelo Dalisi, Martina Gatti, Alessio Montagnani, Roberta Mattei, Ermanno de Biagi, Alessandro Cremona, Ignazio Oliva, Valeria Correale, Federica Dordei, Francesco D’Angelo, Piergiuseppe Francione, Juri Roverato and Anna Ferrara   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures  

Grade: C

The title might make one assume that Abel Ferrara’s film is a biography of Francesco Forgione, the early twentieth-century Capuchin Franciscan friar and mystic who had taken the name Pio upon his entrance into the Order in 1903 (his ordination came seven years later); and to a limited extent it is.  Shia LaBeouf plays Pio, but the segments focused on him actually constitute the smaller portion of the film, most of which is devoted to a struggle between socialists, largely peasants just returned from military service in World War I, to win political power in the Apulian town of San Giovanni Rotondo, where Pio’s friary was located, and the region’s long-entrenched landowning establishment.  The conflict culminated on October 14, 1920, when a massacre occurred in the town square: a group of socialist supporters demanding recognition of their disputed victory in local elections, the first that had extended the vote to all male citizens, were fired upon by police, resulting in fourteen dead and some eighty injured. 

Ferrara juxtaposes that political crisis, which he portrays from the return of the war veterans through the massacre, with the spiritual struggle of Pio, who’s tormented by doubts about his visions (and presumably the stigmata that he began to experience at thus time), as well as the strain of his pastoral duties.  A major problem with the treatment, however, is that Ferrara leaves it to the viewer to draw connections between the two parts of the narrative.  One senses, especially in the nervously tactile cinematography of Alessandro Abate, the passion with which Ferrara feels that they’re interrelated, but he never articulates precisely how, and as a result while the viewer might be emotionally affected by the histrionics in both, he must himself struggle to link them logically. The abrupt, jagged editing of Leonardo Daniel Bianchi is of little assistance in the effort.

The difficulty is accentuated by a lack of subtlety throughout.  Despite the authenticity of the visuals—Tommaso Ortino’s production design makes good use of the gritty rural locations, and Antonella Cannarozzi’s costumes have a properly lived-in-look—neither section of the film is convincing in anything close to a conventional dramatic way. 

The socio-economic element is treated simplistically as a conflict between good and evil.  It begins with the return of the first group of soldiers to town.  Some are welcomed back by loving families, others are maimed and apologetic, and a few are missing, like the husband of Giovanni (Cristina Chiriac), who does not appear on the casualty lists but is not among the bedraggled veterans.  His continued absence feeds the lust of Vincenzo (Salvatore Ruocco), the brutal eyepatch-wearing henchmen of powerful landowner Renato (Brando Bacitto).  Vincenzo is Renato’s enforcer over the local peasantry, whom he works mercilessly—in some cases, literally to death—as they toil clearing and planting the fields. 

Vincenzo also leads a gang of thugs, fascists still in a nascent stage, against socialist agitators like young, university-educated Luigi (Vincenzo Crea), who are stirring up the workers. But the proto-revolutionaries are split between activists like Luigi, who look to Russia for inspiration, and older, more cautious party members like Silvestro (Luca Lionello), who argue in favor of using democratic methods to win, rather than seize, power—a division that leads to the frustration that explodes in the 1920 massacre, when the exercise of brute force proves decisive.  Presenting this struggle in black-and-white terms of naïve heroes against unscrupulous villains, Ferrara opts to encourage an acting style that strains for the operatic but comes across merely as amateurish.

Meanwhile Pio, also recently returned to the friary, is shown, in LaBeouf’s unrestrainedly ferocious performance, as confronting all manner of demons. There are flashbacks to his being berated for cowardice by authorities during his own army service, as well as sessions when, serving as pastor, he loses his temper at those confessing to him.  He’s also confronted by visions of Mary and Satan, who taunt him with insults and threatening prophecies that shake his confidence in his own devotion. These are mostly shot by Abate in jerky hand-held style and lurid red tones. 

Although dressed in monastic garb appropriate to the time, moreover, LaBeouf shouts in his flat American accent in very modern terms (at one point telling a penitent to “shut the f*** up”).  Perhaps the intention is intended to set him apart from the townsfolk, whose broken English seems out of another film (and time), or to create a connection with the present day’s exploitative treatment of the downtrodden (a connection accentuated by the film’s dedication to the people of Ukraine), but if so it doesn’t work.  It merely emphasizes the film’s disjointedness.

So do some very strange music cues.  Joe Della’s score is mostly morose, but occasionally modern songs are introduced to comment, with a heavy hand, on the action.  When footage of workers toiling endlessly in the field unfolds to the strains of a blues number by Blind Willie Johnson, it elicits a reaction of incredulity rather than a feeling of rightness.        

The result is a film that has a certain raw power and intensity, but is simply too strident, fragmented and opaque to move us to the indignation it’s apparently aiming for.  We can’t even be sure whether Ferrara intends us to conflate Pio’s spiritual struggle with the peasants’ political one, or rather to see it as a symptom of the church’s refusal to join fully with the commoners.  (Pio simply encourages people to turn to God, and uses a memory from his own childhood to teach the distinction between the human and the divine perception of things.  Other church figures quietly bless the town’s ballot boxes. One might conclude that the church is merely dispensing what Marx saw as opium to the masses.)  Despite all that, the film is nonetheless more coherent than its truly impenetrable predecessor, “Zeros and Ones.”     

In any event Ferrara devotees will undoubtedly find it of interest, if only as another item in his esoteric, challenging, but often frustrating filmography.