Viewers may be misled by the title of director and co-writer Abel Ferrara’s historical drama “Padre Pio” (Gravitas). The film is less a profile of the titular saint, played passionately by Shia LaBeouf, than a portrait of San Giovanni Rotondo, the Apulian town of his Capuchin monastery, in the period immediately after World War I.

Moviegoers in search of an uplifting hagiography, accordingly, should look elsewhere. All the more so since Ferrara’s script, penned with Maurizio Braucci, includes graphic material that precludes endorsement for a wide range of age groups as well as themes suitable only for the fully catechized.

As Father Pio grapples with tormenting Satanic visions, the Italian social tensions that would eventually set the scene for the rise of Fascism mount. These are personified in wealthy, corrupt local landowner Renato (Brando Pacitto) on the one side and a group of virtuous socialists, including young would-be revolutionary Luigi (Vincenzo Crea), on the other.

The screenplay suggests points of coherence between Marxism and Christianity. But if that sounds like an uneasy mix, the attempted blending of the events unfolding inside the walls of the Franciscan refuge and those transpiring beyond it is equally unstable. Thus the picture manages to be at once respectful of Christian spirituality and anti-clerical.

The former stance leads to the moving scene in which Padre Pio receives the stigmata. The latter gives us the sight of the local parish priest, Don Anselmo (Piergiuseppe Francione), a dedicated ally of the oppressors, blessing their guns with holy water before a showdown with the good guys.

Such a caricature is, unfortunately, in keeping with the movie’s ham-handed approach to history and ideology. It’s a shame that LaBeouf’s all-in performance – as is well-known, his participation in this project has resulted in his conversion to Catholicism – should come wrapped in such a burdensome husk.

Somewhere inside Ferrara’s flawed political and social retrospective is an intriguing biopic struggling to get out of confinement. A narrower focus would have yielded much stronger results.

The film contains brief but intense gory violence, demonic behavior, rear nudity, references to incest, several rough terms, and a couple of crass expressions. The OSV News classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

— John Mulderig, OSV News