Message of 'Father Stu' is its salvation

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

“Father Stu”? He’s not a regular priest, he’s a cool priest. A tough priest. A priest who swears (a lot), a priest with a history of boozing 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 rueful in a mug shot and then beatific in Catholic clergy apparel. The journey between the two photos is the dominion of “Father Stu,” the directorial debut of Rosalind Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, though there’s more to the story of Catholic priest Stuart Long.

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It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of what the industry has called the “faith-based film” over the past decade or so, especially with “Father Stu” as an example of how far they’ve come, progressing from low-budget projects aimed at niche audiences to major studio star vehicles, hoping to scoop up a mainstream audience showing up for the latest Wahlberg movie. For Wahlberg, a devout Catholic, Long’s life story as a former boxer and actor turned priest is an ideal one to try his hand at a faith-based film.

Released in time for Easter, this R-rated biopic isn’t your typical Catholic programming, but the message to be found in Long’s life and his personal salvation through faith may resonate for a religious audience interested in edgier content.

Though the abundance of f-bombs is an anomaly in a faith-based film, “Father Stu” does adhere to some conventions of the genre. It’s based on a stranger-than-fiction true story, and involves a near-death experience in which Stuart experiences a spiritual visit. Envisioning himself cradled by the Virgin Mary after a harrowing motorcycle accident, Stuart pledges himself to his newfound Catholic faith and ultimately pursues the priesthood despite his original, more prurient motivation for showing up to 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 childhood death of his brother, a failed amateur boxing career and struggles with drinking, God has even more suffering in mind for Stuart. During his time at the seminary, he is diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative muscle disease that renders him disabled but ultimately leads to his greatest spiritual awakening.

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Father Stu." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

It’s a remarkable story, but “Father Stu” is a broad, somewhat brutish film. Ross’ screenplay lightly pummels the audience with the basic beats and beatdowns of Long’s life without ever letting us in on the emotional experience. The characters talk at each other (and at the audience) in vague platitudes, folksy aphorisms, Biblical quotes and street-smart retorts. Wahlberg is in the familiar rapid-fire, rat-a-tat style he has developed over the years, tussling and bantering with everyone around him, not even his encroaching disability slowing down his motormouth.

It can be entertaining, but it’s rarely truly engaging, and the tell-not-show approach to the screenwriting renders the characters two-dimensional and hollow. We barely know who anyone really is, aside from Stuart, and large parts of his spiritual progression are all-too-easily glossed over.

Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret brings a naturalist handheld camera, a desaturated color palette, and lots of slow-motion to elevate the look and feel of the film, and the soundtrack is loaded with classic country and blues. It all lends a “prestigious” sheen, though the story itself is often frustratingly shallow. As viewers, we’re observers, not participants, in Stuart’s spiritual journey, and it’s not until very late in “Father Stu,” as the film is dawdling and meandering to its conclusion, when Stuart takes a breath and simply delivers the message of what he’s learned, that the resonance of what we’re to take away from this comes through.

There is a profound grace to be found in “Father Stu,” when everyone gets out of the way to let the message of suffering as spirituality just breathe. But one can’t help but feel like that comes too little and too late to have any significant impact.

‘FATHER STU’

2 stars out of 4

Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes

Rated R for language throughout.