“Father Stu”? He’s not an ordinary priest, he’s a cool priest. A tough priest. A priest who swears (a lot), a priest with a history of alcohol and boxing. That’s the story told, at least by the film’s poster, which features a diptych of star Mark Wahlberg, looking rough and sad in a mug shot, then blissful in the vestments of Catholic clergy. The journey between the two pictures is the dominance of “Father Stu”, the directorial debut of Rosalind Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, although there is more to the story of Catholic priest Stuart Long.
It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of what the industry has called “faith-based film” over the past decade, especially with “Father Stu” as an example of how far it’s come from low-budget projects aimed at niche audiences to the studios’ main star vehicles, hoping to attract mainstream audiences showing up for Wahlberg’s latest film. For Wahlberg, a devout Catholic, the story of Long’s life as a former boxer and actor turned priest is ideal for trying his hand at a religious film. Released in time for Easter, this R-rated biopic isn’t your typical Catholic programming, but the message found in Long’s life and personal salvation by faith may resonate with religious audiences interested in more content. avant-garde.
While the abundance of F-bombs is an anomaly in a faith-based film, “Father Stu” adheres to certain genre conventions. It is based on a stranger-than-fiction true story and involves a near-death experience in which Stuart experiences a spiritual visitation. Imagining himself cradled by the Virgin Mary after a horrific motorcycle accident, Stuart committed himself to his new Catholic faith and eventually pursued the priesthood despite his original and more lustful motivation for attending church, which was, of course, for a woman, Carmen (Mexican star Teresa Ruiz).
The twist is that despite a long life of suffering, including an alcoholic father, Bill (Mel Gibson), the infant death of his brother, a failed amateur boxing career and alcohol problems, God still has more suffering to mind for Stuart. While at the seminary, he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative muscle disease that left him disabled, but ultimately led to his greatest spiritual awakening.
It’s a remarkable story, but “Father Stu” is a broad, somewhat brutal film. Ross’ script lightly hits the audience with the basic rhythms and beats of Long’s life without ever letting us into the emotional experience. The characters speak to each other (and to the audience) in vague platitudes, folkloric aphorisms, biblical quotes and clever retorts. Wahlberg is in the familiar rapid-fire, rat-a-tat style he’s developed over the years, arguing and joking with everyone around him, even his pervasive disability doesn’t slow his motor mouth. It can be entertaining, but it’s rarely truly engaging, and the scriptwriting approach makes the characters two-dimensional and hollow. We barely know who anyone really is, other than Stuart, and much of his spiritual growth is all too easily glossed over.
Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret brings a naturalistic handheld camera, a desaturated color palette, and plenty of slow-motion to enhance the film’s look, and the soundtrack is loaded with classic country and blues. It all adds up to a “prestigious” sheen, though the story itself is often frustratingly shallow. As viewers, we are observers, not participants, of Stuart’s spiritual journey, and it’s not until very late in “Father Stu,” as the film meanders and meanders to its conclusion, when Stuart takes a breath and simply delivers the message of what he has learned, that the resonance of what we need to take away from it comes out.
There’s a deep grace to be found in “Father Stu,” when everyone steps aside to let the message of suffering as spirituality breathe. But one can’t help but think that it’s happening too little and too late to have a significant impact.
2 out of 4 stars
Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes
Rated R for language throughout.
Where to watch: In theaters Wednesday