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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (3/2/2024)

(Review of Padre Pio; and This Blessed Plot)


In the course of a startlingly unpredictable 50-year career, Abel Ferrara has directed a story about a controversial religious figure (Mary, 2005) and a biopic of a provocative Italian icon (Pasolini, 2014). He now seeks to meld the two approaches in Padre Pio, which places the personal struggles of a provincial Capuchin friar against the backdrop of the political upheavals in Italy in the aftermath of the Great War. Sergio Castellitto (1999) and Michele Placido (2000) have already played the saint in earnestly sincere teleplays, so one has to wonder whether the world needed another portrayal of the mystic and stigmatist from Pietrelcina, especially when he speaks with such a pronounced American accent.

As the survivors return from fighting for king and country, Padre Pio (Shia LaBeouf) arrives on a donkey at the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo in the south-eastern province of Foggia. Among those in uniform is the eye-patched Vincenzo (Salvatore Ruocco), who notices that Giovanna (Cristina Chiriac) has had no news about her husband. While the villagers celebrate or mourn, Luigi (Vincenzo Crea) preaches socialism to a small gathering by candlelight.

With the help of Don Anselmo (Piergiuseppe Francione), local padrone Renato (Brando Pacitto) blocks the road and beats the socialist agitator who had come to deliver a red flag and urge Luigi to favour the ballot box rather than revolutionary force. Seeing so much poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment around him, Silvestro (Luca Lionello) fears that divisions on the left will allow right-wingers to dupe the people into thinking they have answers to their problems.

While wrestling with an urge to leave this life, Padre Pio convinces Francesco (Ignazio Oliva) that he still has a purpose after losing both sons in the war. He also cures a beggar who has long been unable to walk, but he keeps out of the growing tensions between Renato and the peasants who work his land. When one dies of exhaustion, Luigi implores his neighbours to rise up. But others favour democracy, even though a military type has come to the village to intimidate the locals so that Renato prevails in the forthcoming election.

Meanwhile, Padrio Pio hears the confession of a tall man (Asia Argento), who admits to having incestuous feelings about his daughter. He throws him out for denying God, just as Giovanna dismisses Vincenzo when he comes to her house to inform her she has been fired for consorting with the socialists after they are cheated at the ballot box, with the collusion of Don Anselmo.

Confronted by demons, including one in the form a naked woman (Marguerite Burgoin), Padre Pio writhes in torment, as he struggles to understand what the Lord has planned for him. He is giving out communion when Gerardo (Marco Leonardi) carries out an order to fire on the socialists coming to the town hall to claim their victory. Vincenzo looks on in horror as Gerardo shoots Giovanna, who has grabbed a red flag and tried to gain admittance. As three bloodied bodies lie in the dust, Padre Pio finishes mass and feels the stigmatised hand of Jesus on his shoulder.

Dedicated to the victims of the massacre of 14 October 1920 and the people of Ukraine, this is a sincere, but hardly accomplished tribute. For much of the time, Shia LaBeouf (a contentious actor facing off-screen quandaries of his own and who converted to Catholicism after sleeping in the saint's bed during filming) seems to be improvising in a film of his own that has only a vague geographical connection to the political struggle going on between his parishioners. The scene with the heavily disguised Asia Argento is futile and notable only for the friar telling his impenitent visitor to `Shut the fuck up!' But the scenes depicting Padre Pio's long nights of the soul are also actorly contrivance rather than psychologically insightful or potent.

Speaking in a second language, the Italian actors struggles to impose themselves on their roles. Unsubtly lacing the scenario with Trumpian resonance, Ferrara and co-writer Maurizio Braucci saddle the cast with gauche platitudes and clumsy colloquialisms, while the villains are as caricaturedly callous as the meek are vapidly heroic. Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976) this is not. Nor, for all Ferrara's efforts, does it match the Taviani affinity for depicting peasant life, although Alessandro Abate's photography is evocative (if fussy when over-zealously handheld) and the production design of Tommaso Ortini and the costumes of Antonella Cannarozzi are suitably authentic.

The same can't be said for the electric guitars twanging on Joe Delia's score or the anachronistic inclusion of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 blues number, `Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground', and a reedy re-recording of the Tin Pan Alley foxtrot, `Midnight, the Stars and You', that was famously recorded by Ray Noble and Al Bowlly in 1934. Such selections further obscure Ferrara's intentions in centring a supposed biopic of a saint in spiritual crisis on the suppression of Marxism by the Fascist Party that Padre Pio was rumoured to have initially favoured because of its support for the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, we've come to expect this kind of an idiosyncratic muddle, which sums up the latter half of a once-dynamic and dangerous director's career.


Having ventured into docufiction with The Filmmaker's House (2020), the estimable Marc Isaacs stays in that groove for This Blessed Plot. Taking him back to Essex, where he so memorably filmed All White in Barking (2007), this teasing treatise on the ghosts of the past takes its title from John of Gaunt's deathbed speech in William Shakespeare's Richard II. Scripted by Adam Ganz, the self-styled `documentary fiction film pageant' also includes extracts from Ripe Earth (1938), an early short by John and Roy Boulting that was also filmed in the historic town of Thaxted.

As Chinese film-maker Lori (Lori Yingge Yang) arrives by taxi, she's welcomed by the voice of Conrad Le Dispenser Noel, the Christian Socialist vicar who has been dead for nearly 80 years and knows that the divide to the afterlife isn't as wide as people might think. He remains proud of his church and landlady Margaret Catterall takes her to St John the Baptist, Our Lady and St Laurence to look round. She reveals that Cambridge students once came to rip down the red flags that Noel had put outside and explains how he had re-introduced Morris dancing to the village. Standing before Noel's grave, Lori hears him apologise for Britain's unconscionable actions in China and extend his wish that they can join forces to advocate a new brand of Christian Socialism that relates to the Gospels and the Little Red Book.

After visiting the grave of Maggie's husband, Lori accompanies the recently widowed Keith Martin to the windmill, which appears in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales (1972). He explains that he's a builder from London, hence his t-shirt being emblazoned with an Arsenal Underground sign. When Lori asks why he moved, Keith repeats the famous part of John of Gaunt's speech and we see clips from Ripe Earth and local newsreels.

Keith takes Lori to see his Arsenal memorabilia collection. It includes a pair of Aaron Ramsey's Cup Final shorts and boots worn by Emmanuel Adebayor. Lori asks if this is Keith's way of stopping time, but he prefers to think of it as a way of honouring the past. Suddenly, the ghost of his late wife, Sue (Susan Mallendine) appears and asks Lori to inquire whether Keith misses her.

At that moment, Keith's pal arrives after being released from prison. Uncle (Paul Bettie) had left a black bag full of cash with Sue before he went inside for money laundering and Keith is not impressed that she had risked arrest to help him. Lori gets them to re-stage the doorstep welcome, but Keith suggests they stop as he's no longer in the mood.

Noel's spirit explains that there are sinners everywhere and she gets to see this at close hand, when her presence causes tension in the pub. She sits outside to watch Ripe Earth on her phone and receives a warmer welcome from a passing customer. Next day, Lori has breakfast with Keith and Uncle. While filming in the bedroom, she's visited by Sue, who confesses to an affair and hopes Lori can persuade Keith not to put `loving, loyal, and true' on her headstone. He thinks this is apt, as they were together through five Arsenal managers, but Sue thinks something from their song might be more apposite.

In the church, Lori asks Noel how she can break the news of his wife's infidelity to Keith. He shows her the lyrics to `The Hymn of Jesus', which he had commissioned from Gustav Holst, a fellow Christian Socialist, who had lived in Thaxted. Back at the house, where Maggie is dusting her teddy bear collection, she reveals that husband Jim had come to Essex to play in the Morris Festival and had stayed on meeting his soulmate. In bed, Lori watches the Boulting clip about folk music being handed down the generations.

Next day, after filming plaques at Holst's and Keith's houses, Lori inquires about his relationship with his father. He explains how he had been tough but fair and only belted him when he got bad school reports. A VAT inspector calls and informs Keith that he is in arrears and will make a claim to recover the money. Sue's brother, Norman (Norman Culliss), calls to offer his help. Now unsteady on his feet, he used to be a big noise in the City and promises to do what he can.

While filming in the kitchen, the feminist Lori asks if Sue was happy being a housewife and unofficial book-keeper. Uncle warns Keith that Lori might not be who she claims and suggests having her checked out. But he's the one exposed, when Keith finds Sue's diary recording their trysts while he was away watching Arsenal and they fight off-camera, while Lori and Norman exchange meaningful looks.

Next morning, Lori finds Uncle waiting for a lift on the high street. Via monochrome flashbacks, he tells her that Keith had handcuffed him in the museum and gone through away fixtures to prise out details of the affair. They were eventually interrupted by the tax official and some bailiffs, who removed Sue's jewellery and some of the collection. When Uncle offered to use his ill-gotten gains to square things up, Keith threw him out. He also declares Lori and jinx and refuses to let her film him.

Seeking reassurance from Noel, Lori learns that Holst claimed that artists do their best work when they are not a success. He also reminds her of her duty to film the vibrancy and beauty of life, as well as the grimmer aspects. So, she complies when Maggie asks her to film her with some of Jim's Morris friends and Lori has a splendid time at the festival. Shooting in the church and on the high street, she delights in the music and the dance, as night falls.

Woken from a dream, Keith sees Sue and Uncle walking away hand in hand and he bustles after them. Arriving at the church, he prays at the altar, where Noel blesses him in a clip from Ripe Earth. Lori finds him lying on Sue's grave and she helps him home. They patch up and he apologises to her, as he sings Rod Stewart's take on Tim Hardin's `Reason to Believe' at the headstone ceremony. As we hear Holst's `I Vow to Thee, My Country', Keith sticks cuttings in his scrapbook and Lori bows to Noel's monument before taking her leave.

A delight from start to finish, but with plenty moiling under the deceptively homemade surface, this deserves credit if only for focussing on Essex Man for 70-odd minutes without once mentioning Brexit. Coaxing viewers into re-evaluating the sentiments behind the iconic `This Sceptred Isle' speech, Isaacs and Ganz explore the evolution of Englishness and how Shakespeare had exposed the flaws and foibles that have been woven into its fabric.

It's tempting to regard the cornball Loachian nature of the melodrama as satirical, but it's played with charming sincerity by the non-professional cast. Returning from The Filmmaker's House, Keith Martin is once again impressive, although the editing appears to build in pauses that make Yingge Lori Yang (a real film-maker whose 2021 short, The Foreigners, can be found on Vimeo) seem a little hesitant. Her exchanges with the unseen Noel and the phantom Sue similarly lack fluency, but this could simply be because she is an outsider coming to terms with the oddities of small-town rural life (and death). Either way, her performance is thoroughly engaging and allows Isaacs and Ganz to make a few passing remarks about insularity. Their asides on love, loss, folklore, tradition, and faith are also astute.

Poetically pastoral and parodically parochial, this could be the template for a new form of artisanal heritage cinema that blends past and present together to create nowstalgia. You never know...

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