Movie Review – Father Stu

I didn’t hate “Father Stu.” That’s a low bar for a movie, but there it is. Though it personally left me a little cold, I have to acknowledge the good intentions of the movie, and the genuinely good real-life story of Fr. Stuart Long’s conversion and priesthood.

I just wish the movie had told that story. Perhaps to make the story more relate-able to “average” movie-goers, at least as Hollywood sees us, (ignorant of faith, entertained by vulgarity and with a certain bloodlust,) general ugliness was elevated over the real story. Details of the real lives of the Long family that would have mitigated the tawdriness of the movie were left out. Bill, the father played by Mel Gibson, was not the brutal drunk of the movie. Stu had a college education, and an intellectual life long before he entered seminary.

The movie portrays Stu as ape-ish, led around by anything but common sense, with the facial expression of someone who’s been hit too many times in the boxing ring. There’s not a whiff of his interior life. Even when he begins RCIA, he is depicted as simple; and I don’t mean endearingly simple like a child, but dull and unwitting like an orangutan (that fell out of a tree on its head.)

The constant level of vulgar speech in particular is noted in most reviews. It was not just the use of vulgar words, though; it was also vulgar concepts. I worked for a man once who did that: put together two ugly words to create an ugly concept that you just couldn’t scrub from your mind. Like a mashup of cussing. I’ll refrain from using an example here.

I’d been warned about the language, and was prepared. That’s the guarantee of a good story, right? If the language is way over the top, it must mean that the story is so good, it justifies the language. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. But that overshadowing of ugliness with beauty was not fully achieved in “Father Stu.” The movie was not so good as to make the language worth it.

Part of the problem was numerical: two-thirds of the movie stayed on the dark side, leaving only a third to explore Stu’s conversion and life in Christ. Truth to tell, they never really got to his life in Christ. Oh, they showed lines of people waiting to go to Confession with him, but the movie never gave up the goods on exactly why he was so compelling as a priest. They left it at the implication that any priest who could cuss at a professional level would be enough to draw crowds. But it takes more than just a deep knowledge of the seamy side of life to make a good confessor. Why didn’t they explore that? A lost opportunity of great magnitude.

Comedy is what happens when you juxtapose two radically different things, so there was some comic relief when Stu goes into a prison to minister, alongside a seminary classmate who is painfully proper. The prig bombs like a plane dropping out of the sky, and Stu steps in (so to speak; he’s crippled by disease at that point) with some crudity, immediately gaining the trust of the men. It’s an easy laugh to show a Catholic priest saying seriously vulgar things, and the director took advantage of it. I wondered later if the real Father Stu actually taunted imprisoned men with the idea of their wives in bed with other men. That goes beyond crude, all the way to cruel.

The sermons Stu preached in the movie lacked depth, which was perhaps part of the strategy to draw in a worldly audience who couldn’t comprehend anything more. But doesn’t that imply that genuine Christianity is too much for the average person? I think that was a poor decision. Christ never dumbed down anything.

I particularly noted a facile bumper-sticker slogan that Stu repeated in a conversation, “We’re not bodies having a spiritual experience; we are spirits having a bodily experience.” That is not Catholic theology: we are not two separate essences, body and spirit, one dominating the other. We are one essence, an inseparable unity. Granted this is a little profound for a Hollywood film, but since it is at the heart of damaging gender ideology, it’s an especially inappropriate time to throw that confusion at an audience.

I didn’t like Stu as a person for most of the movie. I didn’t like his father or his mother either. Carmen, his love interest, was the shining light of the movie, a rose of pristine virtue… and then he beds her. This detail was true to life, but it broke my heart. Did it advance the movie to include this detail? I suppose it did make his decision to enter seminary particularly poignant, set against the weeping betrayal that Carmen felt.

So the language, the violence, the bedding, was the first two-thirds of the movie. By the time Stu actually became likeable, the movie was almost over. His change of heart, his deepening, his development as a priest, were all glibly portrayed in about ten minutes, with easy devices, like the line snaking out the building for confession.

I have friends who found the movie perfectly excellent, who appreciated the long road that Stu traveled to get to the Faith and the priesthood. The road beyond that conversion point, though, was the real interest for me, and that road was very lightly trod by the movie. I would have switched the proportions, and given more time to the amazing priest that Stu became.

The movie certainly has people talking, and articles are appearing about the “real” Father Stu, who was quite a bit more inspiring than the movie character. For touching those who explore his life outside of the movie itself, “Father Stu” may have scored an indirect win.

6 out of 10, mostly for the good intentions and unintended consequences.

Links to find the “real” Father Stu:

Fr. Stuart Long’s testimony

Fr. Stuart, Montana priest

Full interview with Bill Long, Stu’s father

Interviews with Father Stu

Is the movie based on a true story?