Father Stu – a feel-good film about one man’s journey to faith
At last, a film that makes you feel good about being a Catholic. After several which have focused on scandals in the Church (Spotlight, Philomena), Father Stu is based on the true story of Stuart Long, played by Mark Wahlberg, a former boxer from Montana who becomes a Catholic priest. The film is as much an exploration of toxic masculinity as it is about his journey to faith. Stu’s brother Stephen died aged six, his father Bill (Mel Gibson) has belittled, rejected and humiliated Stu ever since. Bill is an angry man – he even smokes angrily – he’s channeled his grief into anger and taken it all out on his surviving son. Stu’s boxing days are behind him so he sets off to LA to become an actor, appearing in a mop commercial and working in a supermarket, where he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Catholic Sunday school teacher. He attends Church to get to know her. One night in a bar, Stu meets a mysterious stranger who gives him unsolicited, Delphic advice, ending with “don’t drive tonight”. Stu rides home drunk on his motorcycle and has a terrible crash which leaves him for dead. Stu’s conversion experience follows: white light meets white light – the first of a paramedic’s torch, the second of his near-death experience. He sees Mary who tells him he won’t die, that her son died for Stephen. He tells Carmen later that he felt Mary, that for the first time in his life he felt safe and loved. The encounter with Mary expunges his guilt about being alive instead of Stephen. He can stop fighting now and from this point on he commits himself to God.
Carmen and Stu meet in a restaurant and have their very own annunciation scene. He asks her to accept his decision to become a priest. She thought she was unofficially engaged to Stu, but her status is now uncertain. Troubled and upset, she storms out.
Some of the best scenes in the film are between Stu and the sceptical Monsignor (Malcolm McDowell) who doesn’t want “a pugilist with a criminal record” as the face of Catholicism. In his interview, Stu uses all his boxing skills with the Monsignor; he ducks and weaves, spars, stands his ground, challenges him (“you’re afraid I’ll succeed”), finally delivering the knockout line: “if the Church’s choices don’t celebrate a person’s capacity for change then what else does it stand for?”
When Stu is diagnosed with a progressive muscle disorder, the Monsignor calls him in to his office to tell him his physical state may “cause him to disgrace the sacraments”, but this time he is hesitant, awkward; he’s acting on orders. He’s begun to warm to Stu, who wastes no time reminding the Monsignor of the broken body of Christ.
Stu’s journey of faith impacts on the two women in his life, his mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and girlfriend Carmen. Kathleen lost more than a son when Stephen died, she also lost her marriage due to Bill’s alcoholism; Carmen has lost her marriage hopes with Stu. There’s a domestic scene of “toxic femininity” in which both women, afraid of losing him, blame each other for his choice to become a priest.
Stu’s path to the priesthood is contrasted with the seminarian he’s paired with, a young man always destined to be ordained. When they do a prison visit together, Stu takes over, takes it to their level and engages the inmates in a way his clean cut, pious companion can’t. The first time he speaks in church, Stu tells the congregation to just let God in, “he’ll do the heavy lifting”.
Bill is also redeemed by Stu’s conversion, he goes to AA and is baptised. Faith, forgiveness and fatherhood collide. Bill realises he never gave Stu a reason to be his hero, Stu realises he’d been looking to the wrong Father for approval. Their relationship’s healed.
The parish petitions the diocese to ordain Stu, the crippled boxer, and in his ordination sermon he speaks of the experience of suffering being the fullest expression of God’s love. It’s a profoundly spiritual, religious and theological film, with plenty of humour and light touches. In one sublime scene, Stu coaxes shy Carmen into singing Johnny Cash’s Jackson with him at a karaoke bar. When Stu tells his mother he has something to tell her she thinks he’s about to announce he’s “doing a porno”.
The film reminded me why I am a Catholic, but last words to Father Stu:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human one.”
In cinemas May 13, writer and director Rosalind Ross. Columbia Pictures.