Father Stu? He is not a normal priest, he is a great priest. A tough priest. A priest who curses (a lot), a priest with a history of drunkenness and boxing. That’s the story told in the film’s poster, which features a diptych of star Mark Wahlberg, looking gruff and repentant in a mug shot and then beatific in Catholic clergy garb. The journey between the two photos is the domain of “Father Stu,” the directorial debut of Rosalind Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, though there is more to the story of Catholic priest Stuart Long.
It’s fascinating to watch the evolution over the last decade of what the industry calls “faith-based movies,” especially with “Father Stu” as an example of how far they’ve come, going from low-budget projects aimed at niche audiences to major study star vehicles. For Wahlberg, a devout Catholic, Long’s life story as a former boxer and actor turned priest is ideal for trying 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 found in Long’s personal salvation through faith may resonate with a religious audience interested in edgier content.
Although the abundance of f-bombs is an anomaly in a film based on faith, “Father Stu” adheres to some conventions of the genre: it is based on a true story stranger than fiction and involves a near-death experience in which Stuart experiences a spiritual visitation. Envisioning himself cradled by the Virgin Mary after a harrowing motorcycle accident, Stuart commits himself to his newfound Catholic faith and ultimately pursues the priesthood despite his original and more prurient motivation for attending church, which it was, of course, for a woman, Carmen. (The star of “Narcos” Teresa Ruiz).
The twist is that despite Stu’s long life of suffering, including an alcoholic father, Bill (Mel Gibson), the death of his brother in childhood, a failed amateur boxing career, and drinking struggles, God still has more suffering in mind for him. During his time at the seminary, he is diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative muscle disease that disables him physically but ultimately leads to his greatest spiritual awakening.
It’s a remarkable story, but “Father Stu” is a vast and somewhat brutal film. Ross’s script lightly bashes the audience with the basic beats and beats of Long’s life without letting us into the emotional experience. The characters talk to each other (and to the public) with vague topics, folksy aphorisms, biblical quotes and street retorts. Wahlberg has the familiar fast and wacky style he’s developed over the years, bickering and joking with everyone around him, and not even his invasive handicap can slow down his motor mouth. He can be entertaining, but he’s rarely truly engaging, and the “say don’t show” approach to screenwriting makes the characters two-dimensional and hollow. We barely know who anyone really is apart from Stuart, and much of his spiritual progression is glossed over.
Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret brings a naturalistic handheld camera, a desaturated color palette, and lots of slow motion to elevate the film’s look, and the soundtrack is loaded with classic country and blues. It all gives it a “prestigious” sheen, though the story itself is often frustratingly shallow. It is not until very late in Stuart’s spiritual journey that he takes a breath and simply delivers the message of what he has learned, and the resonance of what we must take with us manifests.
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 simply breathe. But one cannot help but feel that it is too late to have a significant impact.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News service.
Execution time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Classified: R for language everywhere
Playing: Starts on April 13 in general version