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Film review: Father Stu knocks out bad stereotypes of the priesthood

The film industry is not kind to Catholic priests. Generally speaking, priests as depicted on film fall into three general stereotypes: perverts, fools, or evil incarnate, all clad in a collar. Sure, there are a few movies out there that show priests as the majority of them actually are — kind, compassionate, striving after holiness and really, normal guys in need of a Savior, just like the rest of us — but many times, those films don’t have the wide appeal they deserve; either that, or they’re just not very good movies.

Father Stu is not like these. Thanks to the involvement of names like Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, and by presenting the Church in a serious and non-burlesque sort of way, Father Stu actually has a fighting chance at demystifying the mystery and bringing the beauty of the priesthood to the masses (no pun intended). And the best part is it’s a really great film to boot.

Father Stu centers around the true story of Father Stuart Long, a priest in the Diocese of Helena who was beloved by many. What makes his story so compelling, and indeed, one of the main reasons why Mark Wahlberg sought to bring it to the big screen, is because prior to his conversion, Father Stu (whom Wahlberg portrays in the film) was not even remotely close to what one would ever consider to be “priest” material. In fact, for most of his life, Father Stu was an atheist, an alcoholic and an all-around trouble maker.

In the film, Stu is the product of a rough upbringing. He loses a younger brother at a young age, and his parents are divorced. His estranged father Bill (played by Mel Gibson) is less than exemplary as a father, leaving Stu as the man of the house to his mother (played by Jacki Weaver). Stu tries to find purpose in the roughneck activity of boxing, and then later moves to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. While out there, he falls in love with a Hispanic gal — Catholic, of course — and he begins to explore the Church, albeit for the wrong reasons. It is amid a downward spiral, where Stu nearly dies in a brutal motorcycle accident, that Stu discovers there might be more to the Church and faith than he thought — even more than he bargained for. He enters the seminary, but while studying, he is diagnosed with a rare muscular degenerative disease that will ultimately claim his life.  

A big part of the appeal of Father Stu lies in its portrayal of the grittiness of life, and how God still has a plan even amidst all that messiness and suffering. Catholics will appreciate the good-natured Catholic humor throughout, and non-Catholics will hopefully be disarmed by the “realness” of its depiction of the Church and the Catholic faith. The film does contain a fair bit of language and crude humor, and it certainly earns its “R” rating. Some may be put off by this, but Bishop George Thomas of Helena, who ordained the real-life Father Stu, even conceded that the film’s strength lies in the fact that it’s “raw and unfiltered, combative and grace-filled,” and that it strongly “witnesses to the truth that no one is ever beyond the reach of redemption.”

Near the end of the film, a wheelchair-bound Father Stu has a great line about how he’s taking the “scenic route” to heaven. And that’s what Father Stu is ultimately about — getting to heaven. We do that only by giving our lives in sincere gift to Christ and others, just as Father Stu did. 

Father Stu opens in theaters on April 13. Learn more at fatherstumovie.com.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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