Director – Rosalind Ross – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 124m
A boxer turned actor who fancies a Catholic girl is drawn into first the church and then the priesthood – out in cinemas Friday, May 13th
Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is stuck. His career as a boxer has been going nowhere for three years, then comes the news from his doctor that he needs to pack it in. That’s okay, though – he always wanted to be an actor, so he moves to LA and lands himself a job serving on a supermarket meat counter. This seems to him as good a place as any to get discovered. That doesn’t go anywhere, but what DOES happen is that he sees a girl he likes, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz).
However, Carmen is a Catholic and won’t date anyone who isn’t. So, to make something happen, he first of all finds her church and attends services there just to see her, then pretty soon he’s signing up to classes to get baptised into the faith. This seems to have the desired effect and they become a couple with marriage on the horizon sometime in the future. It has a further effect on Stuart that he didn’t bargain for: being around religious people and studying what Catholics believe, he starts to become one himself and develop a genuine faith. Carmen is delighted about this, but is less enthusiastic when he feels called to become a priest, since that will prevent the two of them marrying.
The church authorities represented by the crusty Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell) aren’t sure he’s priest material, but Stu is not one to give up easily and while that hasn’t served him particularly well as a professional boxer and a would-be actor, it means that although he doesn’t really tick the boxes of what the church authorities think they’re looking for, he does eventually get accepted. What he has going for him is a down-to-earth honesty; in his pre-religious life he was no stranger to drinking and womanising, and he possesses an ability to speak to ordinary people in a way that they understand.
However, fate – or God – has other plans for Stu. One night, his motorbike collides with a car and he’s nearly killed, leaving him on crutches for a while. Later, he’s diagnosed with a progressive muscle disorder which will slowly but surely reduce his ability to control his body, putting him in a wheelchair and worse. Yet, he sees this as a God-given opportunity to relate to people about the problem of suffering.
The character is based on a real life Catholic priest who Wahlberg, a Catholic himself, learned of through two local priests near where he lives. Something about the man clearly struck a chord: Stuart Long seemed to be everything a priest shouldn’t be, yet somehow the man and the job were to prove the perfect combination. It’s hard not to see him resonating with Wahlberg who like Stu had something of a checkered career before he clicked as an actor. This is very much Wahlberg’s film: he’s the producer, the person that got it made, and it wouldn’t have happened without him. Fellow cast member Mel Gibson is also a Catholic.
Ross’ script, which impressed Wahlberg enough that he asked her to direct it, has a lot of fun with Long’s parents, his devoted yet cynical mother (Jacki Weaver) and his estranged, truck-driver father (Mel Gibson, Ross’ real life partner). It also has a good understanding of religion and never makes any of those serious gaffes to which movies about Christianity or Catholicism are prone. Both parents are antagonistic to Stu’s new-found faith, and these relationships have the ring of truth about them. If the priests and seminarians fall back a little too heavily on stereotypes, Mark Wahlberg playing a fish out of water in their world works very well indeed.
Audiences probably come to a film like this as much to see Wahlberg on the screen as they do to watch a ‘faith-based’ movie, and as a Wahlberg vehicle, it doesn’t disappoint. He’s basically playing a man who messes up his life but then somehow, through religion or God (depending on how you view these things) gets it together, finds his true purpose and makes a genuine impact on people in a positive way. The final reel, when he’s growing in maturity in the faith even as he’s losing control over his own body, is arguably the most moving, and if the tale seems to take a long time getting there, that journey is very necessary for this material to have the impact that it does late in the narrative.
Father Stu is out in cinemas in the UK Friday, May 13th.