Walk a few clicks from Venice’s Palazzo del Cinema and you’ll find the Hotel Excelsior, as grand a work of Moorish revival architecture as you can likely find this side of the Mediterranean. Since 1908 its rooms have hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to George Clooney. It’s where Noodles shows off to Deborah in Once Upon a Time in America. Benito Mussolini once entertained Adolf Hitler on its terrace (you won’t find that mentioned on the website.) A short hop across the street lies the significantly more humble grounds of Tennis Club Venezia, a similarly venerable institution whose courts appear not to have changed a great deal over the last century or so.
Earlier this month you could have spotted Abel Ferrara, a director whose latest film, Padre Pio, dips into similar bygone eras. Starring a shrewdly cast Shia LaBeouf, Padre Pio recounts the events leading up to a massacre in San Giovanni Rotondo, a tragedy that Ferrara plays in moral parallel to the eponymous priest’s religious catharsis. In his review for this website, David Katz was typically erudite with his description: “The Franciscan Capuchin friar of vast 20th-century domestic fame would be obscure to many general knowledge specialists globally, but in Italy he’s an ever-fashionable icon of resistance comparable to Che Guevara—you supposedly see him in street art, taxi drivers’ sun visors, and tattoos.” Or as Ferrara put it to me: “we were working in Napoli. And when you’re in the south, that’s where he rules.”
At 71, the great director’s quick-fire Bronx drawl has lost none of its razor’s edge. “When you work in Italy, it’s different. It’s like with Pasolini, you go back 40 years, but in Italy, 40 years isn’t like going back 40 years in L.A., you know what I mean? Pio is going back a hundred years, but the town we fucking shot it in, not a lot of change—you know? You’d be surprised by how much. Like just look there,” Ferrara explains, pointing toward a façade even more weathered than his own, “you know what I mean?”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Film Stage: Hi, I’m Rory. From Ireland.
Abel Ferrara: Hey, it’s nice to meet you. This is Muarizio Braucci, the screenwriter. [Ferrara turns] Hey Leo! Do you want to sit and listen to this? Yeah, he’s from Ireland. [Leonardo Bianchi joins the group] This is Leo, he’s the editor.
Hello, nice to meet you. So what drew you all to Pio’s story in the first place?
Everything about the guy. I mean, I knew about him probably my whole life, but in my subconscious, you know? I grew up Italian-Catholic, living in New York. And then when I came here it became even more, you know, whatever it is. So we decided to do a documentary just to explore it further. We did this film called Searching for Padre Pio, which was like a deep dive. Then we got the whole story.
Shia gives a great performance. I’m so curious about his casting. Did you write the film with him in mind? How did you two first meet?
I didn’t know Shia at all. The producer recommended him. We just had a Zoom call.
Were there any of his performances that you were particularly drawn to at that time?
I never saw any of his films. Actually, I hate to admit it but, you know, I’m not big into watching films. With Shia, I mean, I live in Italy, but I got the story about the guy, you know? But when I spoke to him, I was speaking to a different guy. He just had his conversion. He’s on a journey, you know what I mean? And he’s doing a lot of the same things I’m doing now. First of all, I’m sober too. So that was a real connection. And the dude, he’s like a guy—you can’t miss it. I mean, just looking at him, there’s the guy.
So it was like: let’s see where this is going to go. Yeah, and by the end of that phone call he was in his truck and driving to the monastery. And you know, he wasn’t asking, “how much am I getting” or “where am I going to live if I come there.” You know what I’m saying? With these films, in the beginning there’s nothing. We spent seven years trying to finance this movie. And with him, there was no conversation about his agent talking to my agent. He was all-in, all the way.
It’s as if he’s brought some part of that into this performance. Did you get a sense of him working through something as you made the film?
What do you think, Leo—`what did Shia bring to this?
Leonardo Bianchi: I think he was really into the character of Padre Pio. As soon as he arrived I immediately called Abel and told him, because Abel was a little scared, because Shia was only giving him the possibility for two takes, three takes, not so many. So he called me and asked how the shoot was going and I immediately told him it’s unbelievable. I can stay watching Shia for hours and hours, even without words, without anything, he’s unbelievable, as soon as he’s on the set, and outside also, of course. For me he’s a great, great actor.
As I was watching I kept thinking about something Paul Schrader said to me recently: he described his films as being like beads on a rosary. I’m wondering if that is something that resonates with you in some way?
Sure. You know, it’s like one long movie. You know, you’re working on something, everything you take from this brings you to the next one—like the beads. You work on that and you keep moving forward, based on the information and the skills you learn. But he’s a poet, you know? He’s a writer.
And from the religious angle? Your last few films have had this kind of vibe, of filmmaking as some kind of absolution. Is that something that you’ve ever considered?
Absolution. Meaning what?
That filmmaking can be religious in some way, like a way of working through something—like Shia is maybe doing with this performance.
I mean, every film is a religious experience, you know? I mean, whatever religious experience is. Like mass, it’s a ritual in the shoot and the editing. You can look at it that way.
Braucci: It’s togetherness, the ritual. Cinema as a ritual.
I’m curious how you find it working in period settings. You had this film within the film in Pasolini that was set in a similar time. What were the challenges in this respect for Padre Pio?
Well, I did The Funeral—that was set in 1934. That was a pain in the ass. Worse was ‘R Xmas—we made that in 2000 but the year the event happened was 1993, so it was only going back seven years. That was a real pain in the ass because everything wasn’t, like, obvious. Constantly it was like, was that here seven years ago? Like sneakers, you know—like, was that happening? It was a nightmare. Like it’s one thing to look at a car and say, yeah, that’s not 1920. But then you look at a car and say, was that ’93 or ’94? You know?
For Padre Pio, you had to get the uniforms right. You had to research it all. You had to build it all. You had to find it all. But yeah, it’s not my favorite thing to do. But the thing with film, you know, that’s the gig. That’s the job. We dealt with it.
I’m curious about the socialist undercurrent to this story. Having lived in Italy for so long, is this a way of thinking that you’ve warmed to?
It happened. I mean, that’s the real story—those are the real people. [To Bianch] We should have put that plaque at the end, I mean those people…
What was the plaque?
I mean, if you go to San Giovanni Rotundo, it says on on the buildings where they got killed. You know: 1920 bah-bah-bah, these people were killed. So-and-so’s a shoemaker, so-and-so’s a housewife, so-and-so’s a farmer. I mean, these people actually died. Those are real people. Those are their names, you know what I mean?
It’s not made-up. This is not like a metaphor or symbolic, you know what I mean? These aren’t characters. These people lived and died. He died, they got shot in the fucking back, you know? They’re dead.
So you don’t watch too many films these days?
We’re working, man. You know? We’re in the editing room all fucking day. You want to go home and watch somebody else’s problems?
How about music?
Music I’m onto. Yeah. We’re doing a documentary on Patti Smith.
Oh yeah? What stage is that at?
It’s like where the Kiev thing is at: we’re shooting. Where it’s going? No one knows.
You’re connected with Patti?
Yeah, she’s cool. She likes the films. For this one we’re shooting her in a studio doing this, like, crazy record. It’s not like a rock ‘n’ roll record, you know? It’s like poetry.
So you out of questions? [Laughs] It’s not going to disappoint us, man. Is there anything else you really need to hear?
No, that was great. Short and sweet. I appreciate it.
Where do you live in Ireland?
Dublin. Have you been?
Yeah, I was there, man. My family, they come from Limerick. My mother’s name is O’Brien, so I’m half Irish.
Have you thought of making a film in Ireland? Plenty of priests.
Yeah, you got plenty of priests, plenty of people, and everybody’s got a story. You go there, man, these cats—everybody can tell you a story.
Padre Pio premiered at Venice Film Festival.