Abel Ferrara, whose gritty New York exploitation films of the 1980s and 1990s delved into the soulless evils of drug addiction, corruption and sexual violence, pays homage to one of Italy’s best-known and most revered saints in his newest film, “Padre Pio.”

That the film, which stars Shia LaBeouf and premieres at the Venice Film Festival next week, confirms a change of pace for the cult director is an understatement, one that Ferrara, 71, chalks up to a decade of sobriety and a new life in Italy.

“Once we kicked the drugs and the alcohol, we started to see a different way of life, of living in a different life,” the “Bad Lieutenant” director said in an interview in his new hometown of Rome. “I think it’s more just trying to get our game right.”

The film chronicles a particular moment in the 20th century history of Italy and Padre Pio, the mystic Capuchin monk best known for having displayed the “stigmata” wounds of Christ: He bled from his hands, feet and sides. Padre Pio died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002 by St. John Paul II, going on to become one of the most popular saints in Italy, the U.S. and beyond.

Ferrara’s treatment is no biopic, and frankly ignores some of the juiciest bits of the Padre Pio saga, which involved a dozen Vatican investigations into purported dalliances with women, alleged financial improprieties and doubts about the stigmatas. In their place, Ferrara weaves a parallel tale about the beginnings of fascism in Italy that is, unexpectedly, utterly relevant today.

The film takes as its starting point Padre Pio’s arrival at a Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo, a poverty-wracked town in southern Italy, at the time its soldiers were returning home from World War I. The town was almost feudal-like, with the Catholic Church and wealthy large landowners trying to hold onto power amid the first inklings of Italy’s post-war socialist movement that saw factory unrest and peasant strikes.

“Given the list of films I’d made you’d be wondering,” Ferrara admits. But he said church officials and the Capuchin friars who advised on set were entirely supportive of the project and its star, LaBeouf, who has admitted to alcoholism and has been accused by a former girlfriend of abuse. LaBeouf spent four months in a California monastery preparing for the role, Ferrara said, and has said the chance to play “Padre Pio” was a miracle for him personally.

“It’s just that these cats have got that optimistic take,” Ferrara said admiringly of the church. “Don’t judge someone on their worst moment.”

Full story at ncronline.com.