Abel Ferrara says casting Shia LaBeouf as Padre Pio, the Italian monk who gained rock-star status among the Catholic faithful, coincided with a point in the actor’s life “where he connected very deeply with Pio’s journey in the film.”

“Padre Pio,” which is among titles set to launch next week from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Giornate Degli Autori, will see LaBeouf back on the big screen after the actor — best known for his roles in the Transformers and Indiana Jones franchises — took a break from acting in 2020 following allegations made by his ex-girlfriend Tahliah Debrett Barnett. The singer, known as FKA twigs, sued LaBeouf for sexual battery and emotional distress.

LaBeouf subsequently took a break from acting so that he could solely focus on his recovery.

Padre Pio, who was born Francesco Forgione in southern Italy in the late 19th century, elicited both devotion and controversy throughout his life. He rose to fame in the Catholic world for exhibiting stigmata — crucifixion wounds corresponding to those on the body of Jesus Christ — before becoming a symbol of hope for southern Italians during the country’s turbulent period between the two world wars. He died in 1968 at the age of 81, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1999, and then canonized in 2002.

“He’s an iconic figure,” says Ferrara. “He’s on the back of every truck. He’s the saint of every drug dealer in Naples.”

The “Bad Lieutenant” director also points out that “as an iconic figure, Pio is like the alternative Jesus, in a way.”

Ferrara, who lives and works in Italy, recalls it was Willem Dafoe who first suggested that he should reach out to LaBeouf for the role. After a few Zoom calls, LaBeouf was on board, and ready to fully immerse himself in the role.

“He’s the kind of actor that the next minute he jumps in his pick up truck and he’s driving to a monastery in California,” says Ferrara.

The helmer explains that when LaBeouf arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, he was dressed in a robe. Then, he went to the monastery in southern Italy where the film was shot and slept in a bed that Padre Pio slept in. Ferrara points out that the film is supported by the Padre Pio brotherhood and that the monks in the film are real.

“He’s bringing his own life to it. You are seeing a person going through a very similar experience. It’s not just about wearing robes and performing actions,” Ferrara notes.

“When the actor is living a parallel-type journey, that’s when you get such a powerful performance.”

LaBeouf will be attending the Venice world premiere of “Padre Pio,” but will not be doing press.

“Padre Pio” is produced by Diana Phillips, Philipp Kreuzer, Maurizio Antonini and Cristian Mercuri of Capstone, which is handling world sales.