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“Father Stu”: A Story of Hardship and Redemption

(Sony)

One of the spiritual overtones present in Father Stu is one important to Christian teaching: the merit of suffering. The Christ-like endurance of suffering is particularly embodied in Long himself.”

Life is meant to be the schoolroom of love, mercy, and forgiveness. In Christian consciousness, it is supposed to be a process of continual conversion, of continually striving for self-improvement through cooperation with God’s Will and grace.

A modern-day exemplar of this conversion process, a man who found the Light of the World amid the world’s darkness, is Father Stuart Long, who lived from 1963 to 2014. Long, a Catholic priest, is the subject of the recent biopic Father Stu, a passion project that came to fruition through the collaboration of Hollywood Catholics Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson.

In everything from temptation to habitual sin, from suppression of vocation to religious hypocrisy, Father Stu, which was released last month and was written and directed by Rosalind Ross, is starkly authentic. It cuts deep, remaining raw and realistic throughout. It is the best newly-released film this writer has seen in the better half of a decade. 

In real life, Stuart Long was athletic from an early age, proving himself a wrestler and an excellent football player during his high school years. Father Stu focuses on his amateur boxing career in adulthood, imagery of which is brought up repeatedly throughout the film.

Stu is a fighter, and he has to prove that time and again—as he seeks a new job, as he pursues love, as he proceeds to enter seminary despite a chorus of No‘s, as he wrestles with the effects of inclusion body myositis, as he contends for priestly ordination. It is an uphill battle all the way.

In Father Stu, we are confronted with several characters who, though they confess a single faith with their lips, show themselves to be hypocrites through their contrary actions and intentions. Such characters show us that even in people of faith, our temptations, anxieties, and failings weigh us down and can get the better of us.

But, as the redemptive story of Long and the lives he touched go to show—and according to the narrative presented in the movie—healing, along with a deepening of faith, can be obtained in Jesus Christ. Long’s life before God was empty and corrupt. After a vehicular accident that left him on the brink of death, he turned his life around. Yet, just because he wanted to do good to others in his life did not mean things came easy. Instead, things got harder; his faith was tested in an extreme way: A debilitating disease limited his mobility and hindered the process of fulfilling his dream.

One of the spiritual overtones present in Father Stu is one important to Christian teaching: the merit of suffering. The Christ-like endurance of suffering is particularly embodied in Long himself.

The imagery employed at the end of the film perfectly captures the core of who Stuart Long was: biographically, emotionally, and spiritually. Father Stu ends with a clip from his earlier boxing days. He just won the match. Beaming, a big smile emerging over his bloodied face, he stands triumphantly with his muscular arms outstretched, not unlike Jesus’s outstretched arms nailed to the Cross. Here is the priest, the one who takes after Christ, the crucified and bloodied man, the fighter who has finished the race, and he is victorious. By the end, though his body wasted away, Long’s soul was as his boxer body had been previously: strong, vibrant, and full of life.

This is the definitive Christian story played out in the life of a real man. A man who had his faults. A man who saw the suffering Christ and took up his cross to follow Him. The realism and inspirational flare of the film would not have been possible without Mark Wahlberg (who plays in the titular role) and the supporting cast.

Mel Gibson plays Bill, pretty much an older, angrier version of Mel Gibson. Jacki Weaver plays an understandably emotional Kathleen Long. Teresa Ruiz, who brought Carmen’s character to life on screen, does a fine job offering convincing reactions to accompany the developments in Stu’s spiritual journey.

Cody Fern gives Jacob, cautious friend and fellow seminarian of Stu, his seemingly distant and overtly-pious personality. Aaron Moten provides a phenomenal performance of the unsung hero Ham, who is indispensable in aiding Stu through spiritual discernment, the seminary, and inevitably the priesthood.

Malcolm McDowell takes on the role of Monsignor Kelly, a character who seems to be played as more of a caricature of a priest than the real deal, though it was not McDowell’s first time portraying a stern old cleric. He did it once before in St. Patrick: The Irish Legend, where he plays the British Cardinal Quentin who is hastily judgmental of Patrick’s missionary labors.

This cast brings Father Stu to life, showing to what extent this amazing man’s vocation touched the lives of those around them, awakening them to the need to seek God in their lives and cultivate a real relationship with Him.

Father Stu, rated R primarily for strong and frequent profanity, is certainly recommended for mature audiences, whether they be religious or not.

John Tuttle is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Tablet and The Hill.

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