Abel Ferrara began his movie-making career directing pornography. Now he’s making a movie about one of the most popular Catholic saints from the 20th century: St. Pio of Pietrelcina, commonly known as Padre Pio. 

The director's involvement in the porn industry is no secret, as he told insidehook.com in 2020 that much of his movie-making knowledge began with shooting pornography.

What drew him to make a movie about the famous Italian mystic? “Given the list of films I’d made you’d be wondering," Ferrara told the Associated Press in an interview published Aug. 26. 

But, according to the AP, he said that “church officials” and Capuchin friars who were on-set advisers for “Padre Pio” threw their support behind the film.

Born in the Bronx, raised in America, but now living in Italy, the 71-year-old Hollywood director says the stark difference between his older, more edgy films — including “Bad Lieutenant,” “Ms .45,” and his pornography films — and the new “Padre Pio” movie is a testament to the changes brought about by 10 years of sobriety and his new life in Italy.

Ferrara is married and is raising a daughter, according to the 2020 interview with insidehook.com. Also the father of two older daughters, he said raising children sober is “way, waaaay better,” adding, “That’s putting it mildly.”

Raised Catholic, Ferrara now identifies as Buddhist, according to a 2021 interview with thefilmstage.com. However, in the insidehook.com interview, he said that Buddhism "is a practice for me, not a religion."

His fascination with Padre Pio isn’t new, the AP reported. His grandfather was born in a town close to the saint’s hometown of Pietrelcina, Italy, and also played a role in introducing him to Padre Pio’s spirituality.

“Once we kicked the drugs and the alcohol, we started to see a different way of life, of living in a different life,” he told the AP. “I think it’s more just trying to get our game right.”

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Actor Shia LaBeouf, who plays the role of Padre Pio, recently announced in an interview with Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and Word on Fire Ministries that his involvement with the film led him to embrace the Catholic faith after reaching a low point in his life.

The film is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, which spans from Aug. 31 to Sept. 10. It’s unclear when it will hit theaters or streaming.

A pivotal year in the saint's life

“Padre Pio” is set in the 1920s during an uprising of fascism in Italy while the now-saint, born Francesco Forgione, is in the early years of his priesthood. Ordained in 1910, Padre Pio first received the stigmata — the wounds of Jesus — in 1918.

According to the AP, the film omits the more publicly-known pieces of his life that include several investigations into the saint by skeptical Vatican authorities.

The film’s beginning includes the World War I homecoming of Italian soldiers to San Giovanni Rotondo, the town where Padre Pio’s monastery is located. The setting includes social strife between the Catholic Church and wealthy landowners and an uprising of socialists that includes the working class and peasants, the AP said.

After the socialists win a local mayoral election in 1920, the ruling class, backed by the Church, refuses to respect the results. Political unrest ensues. The socialists attempt to hang their flag on the local government building, but in an attempt to stop them, police shoot into the crowd and kill 14, while injuring 80. Ferrara called it the “Massacre of San Giovanni Rotondo” in the interview.

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Ferrara, who had made a documentary about Padre Pio before working on the movie, felt that the intersection between the saint’s spiritual battles and the political bloodshed at San Giovanni Rotondo made sense as a scope for the film.

“I thought the confluence between the massacre and his stigmata both happening in the same place at the same time … I mean how could you not make a movie about that?” he told the AP. You can watch a trailer of the film below.

In Catholic circles, Padre Pio is mostly known for his deep wisdom about prayer and peace; his stigmata; miraculous reports of his bilocation; being physically attacked by the devil, and mastering the spiritual life.

The popular phrase “pray, hope, and don’t worry” is often attributed to the famous friar.

Speaking on the film’s context, Ferrara told the AP: “You’re looking at the end of the world.” He dedicated the film to the victims of that massacre and the people of Ukraine, the AP reported. He said he did so because “what I’m looking at is a rerun of World War II. Seventy-five million people died 70 years ago. That’s like, yesterday. It’s happening right in front of our eyes.”

Is the film accurate and worth seeing?

Brother Alexander Rodriguez — a Franciscan Capuchin who became close with LaBeouf during the actor’s preparation for the role of Padre Pio — told CNA Monday that he recommends the film for anyone to see. 

He said that the film’s depiction of the saint is about 90% accurate and is largely based on Padre Pio’s letters to his provincial and spiritual director from 1911–1918. Rodriguez, who accompanied LaBeouf both spiritually and as a co-actor in the film, said that together they visited an exorcist so LaBeouf could learn about Satan, possession, and exorcisms, considering the saint’s intense conflicts with the demonic. 

They also visited a priest who celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass so LaBeouf could learn the major parts of the Mass that the saint would have celebrated.

Luciano Lamonarca, founder and CEO of the Saint Pio Foundation — which is dedicated to the promotion of the saint’s spiritual charism — told CNA Monday that he will be watching the film and hopes many will watch as well. 

“The hope is that people will be attracted by a genuine interest in watching this movie, and then will move forward to learn more about the life of Padre Pio,” he said. Those seeking more information of the saint should read books about his life by Frank Vega and visit the foundation's website, Lamonarca recommended.