Father Stu


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Father Stu
"This is an oddity, a curiosity, a mystery not so much in the sense of a religious play but in its intent."

This is a film that boasts of being based on a true story, and it is that which gives it its greatest asset. The story of Father Stuart Long is an interesting one, but this fictionalised depiction is a curate's egg. There are so many oddities that its origins as a tale pale beside questions of audience and intent.

Mark Wahlberg plays our eponymous seminarian, albeit first in his guise as a boxer. No stranger to the ring, he's gone down the usual Hollywood route of making a journeyman pugilist look like Italian marble that's not had any water to drink for a week. This will be followed by a clean shave and then by significant weight gain. Stuart is called not only to God, which forms the bulk of the plot, but given a trial in the form of a degenerative disease. To depict muscle wasting by replacing muscle with waist might seem a little on the nose, but that might be enhanced as well.

Written and directed by Rosalind Ross, this is a début feature. She's currently working on Barbarian, yet another version of the Boudica story. There are enough qualms about modern depictions of the Queen of the Iceni and her resistance to Roman rule, Marxist criticism and all means that we must look to the circumstances of author to see potential sources of intent. What worries most though is not the quality of this but its surroundings. Ross may be more famous as the current paramour (and mother of the ninth child of) the film's other star, Mel Gibson.

I can't speak from other than a lay perspective of the film's depiction of the American Catholic Church, nor do more than remark that Gibson's own religiosity is complex enough even outwith his storied personal life to include manifestations of devotion like Apocalypto and The Passion Of The Christ as well as having been raised within a sedevacantist tradition. That derives from 'sede vacante' which suggests that the See of Rome is vacant, and predicated upon a rejection of Vatican II that by extension the current Pope (and many before him) are not legitimate. If that seems complicated and an odd diversion within a film review, know that I mention it because this is a film whose doctrinal origins likely hold more fascination than its story.

That's not so much because of the story it tells, but how it goes about it. The real Stuart Long had an encounter with Joan of Arc at Notre Dame, but that is distinct from the visions of Mary and a barfly functionally indistinguishable from Jesus that we see in the film. It takes a number of short-cuts to get Stu from bear-pit to pulpit but in squaring the circle it makes a number of decisions that feel odd.

There's a rant about participation ribbons which feels like its taken from some pixelated Facebook gospel. There's a description of Hollywood as a place of "Carpetbagging Communist Fascist Hippies". There's a discussion that could apply to this story that it "doesn't promise they'll make sense" but also that they'll "find their greatest purpose". Adding a line that "grief isn't a disability" and using lens flare as enlightenment just adds to the mishmash of iconographies at play.

There's a lot of crude language, how much of that is meant to be a counterpoint in coarseness and how much of that is a reach for Trainspotting levels of verisimilitude I don't know. There are a couple of nice lines, including an observation that "this ain't the hill to die on" but they are overwhelmed by something too smudged to be cliché. A scene with Malcolm McDowell as a Monsignor feels as if Father Stu is going to be asked for his gun and his badge. His accent work on the word 'stewardship' does more subtlety bring than almost anything else in the film. There's a rainbow at one point, and for reasons I cannot fathom Mel Gibson says something is like Hitler joining the ADL.

At one point Mark Wahlberg crawls down a darkened aisle to shout at the altar, though I might have conflated it with another scene that reminded me most of the 'Oscars clip' from Wayne's World. A shot of light through a stained glass window is blown out in a way that doesn't suggest a peasant's transcendental exposure to godliness through the colours of His countenance so much as a DoP who wanted to get a scene in the can to go home. The use of country music, some classic, plenty contemporary, gives this a down home edge that starts to grate. That's even without the presence of Alcoholics Anonymous and the over-egged score of Dickon Hinchcliffe.

There's a scene in the credits, which mixes oddly with the presence of archive footage of the real Father Stu and photographs of him and his family. We hear his voice too, though not the real version (if any) of the mop infomercial. Teresa Ruiz plays love interest and guilt source Carmen, while veteran Australian actor Jacki Weaver plays Stu's mother. As fellow students, Aaron Moten and Cody Fern have a bit more to do, as supporters and antagonists to Stuart. Their faith (and crises thereof) are matched by a kind of buddy cop etiquette that includes a scene that reminded me of True Lies.

This is an oddity, a curiosity, a mystery not so much in the sense of a religious play but in its intent. It may itself be an act of devotion, but from whom and to what end is uncertain. The history of Hollywood accounting makes me wonder if this is less hagiography than tax efficiency but I have insufficient evidence for more detailed deduction. Given that this has scenes where someone is literally preaching to Mel Gibson I found it difficult enough to approach as a text, however illuminated.

Some of these are my biases. I can but be open with them. I found little to praise here, but in truth not much to condemn. This is middling, however centrally it foregrounds faith it did not suspend my disbelief, and that with the safety net of fact. Roadside conversions, be they on the way to Damascus or after falling off a motorcycle, are not a new story, but in part because of the oddity of its ingredients and the nature of its preparation, Father Stu is not the stuff of heaven but thin gruel.

Reviewed on: 12 May 2022
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Father Stu packshot
The story of a boxer-turned-priest who inspired countless people during his journey from self-destruction to redemption.

Director: Rosalind Ross

Writer: Rosalind Ross

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ruiz, Jacki Weaver, Faith Jefferies

Year: 2022

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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