A sleepy feast of faith with true history

There is something to be said about the personal journeys we take on when we experience art. Media in particular tends to give a self-fulfilling blow. We are told when we experience these stories that we should not take them too personally. Of course, there are lessons to be learned within the subject that can speak volumes about one’s own experience of this absurd thing we call life. But what happens on screen, in a painting or in a book should not always be seen as a reflection of one’s life. Instead, seeing ourselves in a story or in a character should be seen as guidance; soft advice on how to get through an obstacle that both we and the characters on the screen have encountered or will encounter at some point.

This, of course, presupposes that the narrative has a very personal, human experience to share. Sometimes a story has larger views than humanity’s in perspective, while some prefer to look at the smaller picture. Father Stu aims to be a bit of both, but its prayers may well have fallen for closed ears.

Directed and written by Rosalind Ross and starring Mark Wahlberg, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz and, you know, Mel Gibson, Father Stu is based on the true life story of Stuart Long, an amateur boxer who became a petty actor and became a Catholic priest. Seriously. During this wild ride, Long was diagnosed with Inclusion-Body Myositis (IBM), a rare disease that causes failure in most of the body’s primary muscles. Long’s story is strong as he searches for answers to his human suffering and ultimately tries to find God.

Now, this author’s personal journey with religion is not so relevant to this film. And in his honor, Father Stu does not require you to be a believer in order to get anything out of it. However, it seems to give the message that if you are not, it may be the reason why life is not going so well for you.

The shaky and slippery slope of faith-based films has always stemmed from the exclusive nature of their stories. It’s not exactly specific to religious cinema, but it’s harder to convince someone to watch a movie like Father Stu if they are not already subscribing to the same magazine (or bible?) as you. I do not think that was necessarily what Wahlberg and Ross set out to do when they told this story, but here we are.

Let’s put it this way. Father Stu not really trying to make you believe in anything. It’s more about why people choose to believe in something in the first place.

True, finding religion is a completely understandable and often useful way to get one’s life on track. We seek purpose and understanding when it comes to our place in the bigger picture, and we all come to different conclusions about what that place is and how we can get there.

But the idea that simply “finding religion” is supposed to be the key to correcting one’s mistakes can be a rather damaging message today, especially in a world where religion is often used to justify backward and harmful views. Being a good person is about more than just going to church regularly.

Father Stu does not necessarily go after this idea. There’s a story here that presents a discussion of ordinary human decency, and Stuart Long himself is an example of someone who uses faith as a stepping stone to truly turn his life around. But all of this is eventually thrown aside as a throw-line and replaced with false revelations and Comedy Central roast dialogue throughout.

In fact, the biggest problem Father Stu suffers from is its irreparable nature, which can really be traced to its authorship. Several times in the film, a moment was supposed to be downright heartbreaking as characters get tears in their eyes while receiving horrific news. But scenes like these are filled with sincere dialogue, which is often performed calmly by the actors. Father Stu has lots of the pieces required to have a real conversation about belief in our modern world, even if it takes place in the 80s and 90s. But it chooses instead to be a film that feels like it was released at the beginning of the last decade, a film as dated as the most dated views on religion can probably be at this point in the 21st century.

Father Stu now playing in the cinema. Watch the full trailer here.

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