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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was about dogs, but it’s Easter, so I went in a somewhat more religious direction instead.)

There lives a Light, a Whisper in the depths of every heart,
And every one is different in its susurrating art.
We’re welcome to ignore it,
Just as much as to explore it,
Or to drown it out or call it all imagined from the start.

We have no obligation to give credence to its needs,
But everyone in history who’s done praiseworthy deeds,
Who’s sacrificed or died
In a way deserving pride,
Has followed that small Whispering no matter where it leads.
_______________________________

MPA rating:  R (solely for language)

Faith-based films have gotten a bad rap in terms of general quality and appeal, and it’s not entirely undeserved since so many feel designed to convert rather than entertain. Christians like me may agree with the message, but preaching to the choir gets old after a while and is unlikely to sway nonbelievers. That generalization may make non-Christians roll their eyes at a film like Father Stu, Mark Wahlberg’s sincere biopic about boxer-turned-priest Stuart Long. That’s certainly what many critics seem to be doing with their reviews, but I would point out the wide disparity between the 45% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics and the 95% from audiences.

In the film, Stuart Long is, to put it bluntly, a low-class loser, the kind of lout who flaunts his charming smile when in a good mood but is quick to throw a punch when annoyed. His boxing career has hit its end, and despite the concerns of his mother (Jacki Weaver) and scorn of his deadbeat father (Mel Gibson), he decides to head out to Hollywood to be an actor. When his courtship of a devout Catholic girl (Teresa Ruiz) exposes him to religiosity, a near-death accident convinces him to unexpectedly seek the priesthood, no matter what doubts and physical limitations stand in his way.

Father Stu is certainly not the typical “faith-based film,” sporting an R rating for the abundant profanity from mainly Stu and his parents. Stu himself is no altar boy, expressing either contempt or flippancy toward the traditions of the Catholic church he wanders into and viewing it as merely a means to win over a pretty girl. His scoffing answers to some of the platitudes tossed his way act as the eye-roll cynical viewers might share, yet that blue-collar frankness becomes a strength when he decides to recognize that God might have a plan for him. One scene with a group of convicts during a prison visit highlights the contrast between Stu and one of his priggish fellow seminarians (Cody Fern), where the latter’s by-the-book moralizing may work well in a church setting but is unlikely to win over those not predisposed to listen. Stu doesn’t have fancy metaphors or perfect English, but he clearly relates to the down and out, which is half the battle in trying to reach an audience.

Father Stu is one of the few faith-based films that I think might actually have a chance at reaching nonbelievers with its message. It clearly hasn’t reached the critics, who seem to be complaining that it doesn’t “resonate” with its “inert” and “clumsy” attempt at inspiration, yet what doesn’t “resonate” with one reviewer very well might with others. I found plenty to admire, from Stu’s effort to control his short temper to his comparing himself with other reformed bad boys, like St. Augustine and St. Francis, to highlight how God can use anyone for His purposes. The gradual change he sparks in his father Bill is also moving, and Gibson manages to fit subtle regret beneath his constant bickering with Stu, especially by the end.

With both physical and spiritual transformations (and despite a mumbling drawl that can make him hard to understand at times), Wahlberg delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him, making me wish he could snag an Oscar nomination, though I know the Academy won’t allow that. It’s hard to say exactly how effective Father Stu is at inspiring since inspiration can obviously vary quite a bit among viewers, but it’s easily one of the best and best-written Christian films I’ve watched and one that even nonbelievers should appreciate to find the value in suffering. The heavy foul language makes me waver on whether it should be List-Worthy or a List Runner-Up, but I try to appraise films without regard to profanity, which in this case serves a purpose in highlighting Stu’s evolution from a crude roughneck to true believer. Whatever you may think of Wahlberg or Gibson or Christian films in general, there’s no denying the film’s sincerity at bringing Father Stu’s story to life.

Best lines: (Bill Long) “A man don’t lose when he gets knocked down, but when he won’t get up.”
and
(Father Stu) “We shouldn’t pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one.”

Rank:  List-Worthy

© 2022 S.G. Liput
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Happy Easter to all!

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