Holy Saturday is one of the strangest days of the year. Coming on the heels of Good Friday, the atmosphere is still full of sorrowful meditation yet mixed with an awareness of the coming joy of the Resurrection. In this divergent mindset, I found myself and two close friends sitting in the Cinemark movie theatre in Robinson, Pennsylvania, to see the new Mark Wahlberg movie, Father Stu.
I had mixed feelings about seeing the film. Initially excited by the trailers I had seen or snatches of interviews with the producer, my enthusiasm was cut short by a Crisis review by Austin Ruse. His description of the “blunt vulgarity” and “cringy dialogue” had me expecting something between The Room and The Wolf of Wall Street. This was almost enough to dissuade me, but my curiosity got the better of me and so I ended up in that Pennsylvania theatre on Holy Saturday bracing myself for the worst.
The worst didn’t come. Not even remotely. I did not find blunt vulgarity but broken and aimless human souls. I did not find cringy dialogue but stirring performances from actors who seemed to know the point behind their words even when those words were lackluster.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I do not want to spend much time dealing with Mr. Ruse’s objections to the first half of the film because there is so much good about it that I would like to focus on, but in the meantime let’s turn to those lackluster words. While the dialogue is by no stretch perfect, I would hold back from such words as “sappy” and “corny.” Quippy is a more accurate representation. The dialogue aims less at simulating true-to-life speech and more at communicating the character of each speaker.
In the scene where Stu and Carmen (the love interest) meet, Stu is overly confident, which is expressed by such exclamations as “I got beef!” Carmen is collected and quick-witted, with comebacks like “not much of a fisherman then are you?” This exchange and others throughout the film are rough to read on paper, I admit, but they are salvaged in the film by the actors’ expert delivery. This leads me to the more controversial topic: the language.
Was there crass dialogue and more than the occasional f-bomb? Yes. The film had a much more mainstream approach in its language. I could have done with less, and I would not recommend this movie to younger audiences. That said, it was no more language than I heard around my construction crew or at the local dive. This movie did not fall prey to gratuitous vulgarity. It pointedly used its language to distinguish Stu in his backwater origins from other characters—like Jacob, the polished but pastorally impotent seminarian.
There are two occasions where sexual impropriety is suggested. One involves Stu putting the fear of God into an authority figure who made homosexual advances toward him. The other is shocking for how little it shows, given this film’s Hollywood pedigree. At the end of the day, Stu is a rough character who comes from a rough and broken family.
Speaking of his family, let’s get into what I loved about Father Stu. I loved the characters in the film. I got to the end feeling like I had met real people with real struggles. Whether it was Jacob, the goody seminarian; Stu’s father, Bill, who just wanted to be his son’s hero; or Carmen, the indirect inspiration for Stu’s vocation, no one felt lost or wasted. Most of all, I loved Stu’s conversion and how it flowed from the first half of the movie.
The central question Stu faces is why had God taken the better brother (Stephen) and left him, a disappointment? The first half of the film deals with Stu’s internal struggle for control. His desire for control is rooted in the loss of his brother, Stephen, which Stu blames on God. Stu wants nothing handed to him; he wants to earn everything. Carmen is a conquest, and his conversion to Catholicism is just to win her. Stu has defined himself by this fight for control, and it is precisely this that needs to change for him to undergo a real conversion.
In a scene at a bar, a guy sitting next to Stu (later revealed to be Christ) tells him, “The toughest fights are the only ones worth walking into. You bring a tough guy to his knees, the first few times he feels shame, rage, eventually relief.… You ain’t owed nothing, but you’re getting a chance.” Stu is seeking relief, but this will only be found by being brought to his knees. Does Christ use crude language to reach Stu? Yes. But do we believe that Christ is able to condescend to our messiness and meet us where we are at? According to the film—and the Gospel—also a resounding yes.
This scene is followed by Stu’s accident and his vision of Our Lady. Far from Catholic illiteracy, this tender moment expressed to me how well the movie understood Mary’s pivotal role in this story and as our Mother—cradling her injured child, injured more in soul than body. In this scene, she assures him that he will not die, to which he responds, “You can tell your son I’m not afraid of a little fire.” There is his fighting spirit. She responds, “He died for you, and for Stephen.”
This subtly recontextualizes the loss of his brother in Christ’s own sacrifice. Stu later describes this moment to Carmen as the turning point, saying, “The feeling [Mary] gave me, I knew I could stop fighting. I knew I was safe and loved.” His fighting spirit is not put out though, it is merely refocused. He says that “to win a fight, you gotta…use logic, humility, good judgment. If that’s the struggle, I can do it, I can help.” The priesthood is his new arena, and the prize is spreading the Gospel.
There is far more I could say in praise about the second half of this film and how it deals with the problem of suffering, but I will leave that for you to discover. In summary, I believe Fr. Stu is precisely the kind of priest we need. In the face of institutionalized sexual immorality, a movie industry that extols the anti-hero, and a Church hierarchy that seems more concerned with its image than real conversion, Father Stu brings us back to the epic story of the average man’s struggle with suffering and transformation in Christ.
Sacred Scripture reminds us, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” While Mr. Ruse’s review raises some valid concerns, by highlighting only defects with little to no reference to everything great that is in this film, I think he ultimately does the average Catholic a disservice. This story is not concerned with protecting our Catholic sensibilities. This is about showing how God can take the most wretched of sinners, condescend to their brokenness, raise them up from their depravity through grace, and make them a beacon of light to similarly fallen men—a theme not uncommon in Scripture.
We may choose to wag our fingers at a more mainstream, gritty approach and roll our eyes at the simple story, but that would be unfair to what is a good film. May our eyes and ears be opened as we continue to extol the resurrected Lord in all He has accomplished through men like Fr. Stuart Long.
[Image: Mark Walberg in Father Stu]