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Film review: Father Stu

13 May 2022

Stephen Brown looks at a path to ordination

Mark Wahlberg as the future priest in Father Stu

Mark Wahlberg as the future priest in Father Stu

THE film Father Stu (Cert. 15) tells the story of a real-life priest. Mark Wahlberg plays Stuart Long, a sleazy boxer who subsequently gets through a tranche of low-paid jobs in a futile quest to become a Hollywood star. In and out of trouble and with a foul-mouthed wit, he falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). Although agnostic himself, he nevertheless starts attending her Roman Catholic church, hoping for romance.

Previously, we get snapshots of Bill, Stu’s abusive father (Mel Gibson), who, in the times when he’s around, forever belittles his young child. Even in adult life, Stu’s mother (Jacki Weaver) remains a flaky influence on her son, so much so that Carmen chastises her lack of strong moral leadership. The fact is that all three of the Long family are mourning in different ways Stephen, the brother who died at the age of six.

Rosalind Ross, the writer-director, sees her work as a war story: a man fighting for something bigger than himself and learning to trust, through good and bad, that he can become a better version of himself. In the process, Stu contends with the darkest parts of himself as he struggles to find the light.

This comes with a mystical experience of the Blessed Virgin Mary during a near-death motorcycle accident. It is a life-changer, one intensified by a conversation that Stu has just had with a fellow drinker (Niko Nicotera). It plays like a road-to-Emmaus encounter. The stranger, never seen before or after by the bar staff, tells him: “Life’s going give you a gut full of reasons to be angry, kid. You only need one to be grateful.” One senses that this is the moment when Stu’s eyes have been opened and he has seen the Lord.

It is fair to say that this isn’t a film of two halves. Stu’s early life and the build-up to ordination take most of the screen time. The impressive ministry that the real Fr Stu exercised is only partially displayed. His application to seminary becomes yet another demonstration of his own belief that whatever he sets his mind to is right, whether or not the Church shares his sense of calling.

As such, this becomes just the latest enthusiasm in a series of unlikely career moves. His mother, well used to this, thinks he’s about to tell her he’s going to do a porn film. “No, I’m going to be a priest.” “For Hallowe’en?” she asks incredulously. The hurt that he causes Carmen, who thought that they were getting married, becomes entirely about his own self-sacrifice, irrespective of hers. Stu’s overcoming of numerous setbacks feels more like an individual’s take on the American dream.

The film works best when dealing with pain. The experience of suffering, Stu says, is the chance to be close to Christ, preparing us for eternal glory. There’s little about receiving divine blessings and joy in other ways. Wahlberg (who bankrolled the production) is a practising Roman Catholic. Gibson is a Sedevacantist, one who rejects current Roman Catholic teaching. Both men have notorious personal histories. One can be forgiven for perceiving this film as redeeming misspent moments past.

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