Every religion in the world has stories or accounts (as believers might prefer) of the unlikeliest of men turning to faith and finding themselves in it through what they consider divine intervention. The biographical drama film “Father Stu” is a retelling of one such experience of American boxer-turned-priest Stuart Long. Despite having heartfelt performances from Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, the film remains a mostly lopsided viewing experience, with a great first hour beyond which it loses its original charm and seems rather forced.
‘Father Stu’ Plot Summary
Stuart Long spent his middle age working as an amateur boxer with an impressive record, but the man was well past his prime, almost nearing the age when his body would eventually give up. This is exactly what happens when Stu visits a doctor next—he is told that his body is reacting very unnaturally to wounds, meaning that he would have to give up on his boxing career. His caring but troubled mother, Kathleen, tries to convince her arrogant and stubborn son to listen to doctors’ advice and try to switch profession. It is revealed that Stu had a brother who passed away at the age of six, which led to the parents’ having a terrible fallout, and Stu even now hates his mostly absent and almost abusive father, Bill. What the sudden tragic death had also led to was a deep and passionate hate towards their Christian religion, another trait that all three of them hold on to till the present. Owing to his considerably younger age and hot-headed temperament, Stu has physical expressions of such hatred. One night, he throws a bottle of alcohol and then his own hard fist at a stone statue of Christ at his brother’s graveyard, for not just taking away a young sibling in his past but also his profession by giving him some strange disease in the present. A police car on regular patrol finds him in such a state, and his unwillingness to co-operate gets Stu arrested. This is not a new experience for the man, though, as he has been picked up multiple times before for his impetuous and reckless nature.
During this time at the police station, he comes up with what to do next in life, and Stu moves to California to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor or entertainer. Taking up a job at a grocery store, the man keeps auditioning for acting roles and even works in some commercials. Stu has trouble with the law here, too, with impulsive bar fights and arrests over drunk driving. It is now that he is first seen making contact with his estranged father, only to try to borrow his truck to drive to an audition, as Stu’s own car has been impounded by the police. Bill, too acts distant and troublesome; he does not flinch an eye at expressing disappointment at how his son has turned out to be. Around this time, one day, while working in the store, Stu sees a woman and is instantly attracted to her. When she turns down his initial advances, Stu tracks her down to the local Catholic parish on Sunday, and he signs up for voluntary service only to talk to her. The woman, Carmen, stays away from his charming smooth-talks, though, as she finally reveals that she is a devout Catholic who would not consider dating someone unreligious. However, Stuart Long is convinced that Carmen is the love of his life, and he readily agrees to be baptized into Catholicism.
Major Spoilers Ahead
How Does Stu’s Pretension Of Being Religious Change To Actual Faith?
After agreeing to start the process leading to his baptism, Stu and Carmen go out on dates, although mostly accompanied by another regular volunteer at the church, Ham, whom Stu had befriended. The man also regularly visits the church, partakes in discussion groups, and asks his fair share of juvenile but important questions. He also attends Carmen’s Sunday classes for children, and becomes a beloved character among children, too, for his outgoing and humorous nature. Despite learning to hate and stay away from religion from a very young age, Stu now gradually opens up to the possibilities of Catholicism, although he still remains disconnected from faith. Stu knows that being religious is the only way to woo Carmen, and he leaves no stone unturned in his efforts. Soon he learns to say prayers in Spanish before meals in order to impress Carmen’s Hispanic family, and he strikes up a good relationship with her parents. After a few days after the baptism, though, Stu feels a bit disillusioned with whatever he is doing and goes out to a bar for a lonely drink. Here, a stranger sitting next to him with a rugged, dirty face and long hair advises Stu on the need to be grateful for life. Like all of the man’s words, Stu also ignores his regular-seeming advice of not driving home after a heavy drinking session. As he rides his motorcycle home, Stu meets with a terrible accident in which a car runs over him. It is in his almost near-death trance, somewhere between sense and unconsciousness, that Stu sees a woman, with very close resemblance to the depictions of Mother Mary, comforting him by running her hand over his bloodied head and saying that he will not die in vain. When rushed to a hospital soon after, doctors informed his mother that her son would most possibly die in a while. Kathleen arrives quickly, and so does Bill when she informs him as well, but the two’s behavior remains as usual—the mother constantly sits by her son, who is in a coma, while the father stays away from the ward, causing minor trouble outside in the hallway. Here they meet Carmen for the first time as well, as she arrives and places prayer rosaries and a Bible beside Stu, and they are both unwelcoming of the religious woman.
Within some time, though, Stu makes a miraculous recovery and even starts to walk on his own feet. This whole accident and the words of the stranger at the bar just prior to it seem to have had a deep impact on the man’s faith, as he keeps hold of the rosary even when he is alone. Carmen visits his house, and seeing him worried makes her feel that he is once again doubting God’s actions and questioning why the one in control of everything in the world had to throw at him another set of obstacles. In an effort to help him relax, Carmen indulges in physical intimacy with Stu, despite always devoutly abstaining from sex before marriage. However, what kept worrying Stu was quite the opposite feeling—he now started to question whether his life really had a purpose greater than mere mortals and started to feel grateful for his life, and the session of intimacy made him rather guilty. Spending some more time with his thoughts, Stu decides to give up his normal life and pursue a life of priesthood as he feels he has found tremendous support in God. He tells all of this to Carmen on an occasion when the woman was expecting a proposal of marriage from the man, and she understandably breaks down. Life as a priest would not just mean abstinence but complete celibacy, which means that Carmen would have to give up on her deep love for Stu, and she tries her best to convince him against it. Kathleen and Bill also try their part in convincing him against becoming a priest, with their own hatred against religion still intact, but nothing can now take the man away from his faith. He applies to the local seminary and, after a minor hitch, is accepted into it and starts training for a life of extreme faith. Here he becomes closer friends with Ham and grows somewhat of a rivalry with another volunteer named Jacob, who always used to look down on him. Both are also training to become priests at the moment. Some weeks pass, and Stu is now given the opportunity to preach at Sunday mass, and the man uses examples from his own life to give the lesson of the importance of being grateful. He has a private conversation with Carmen at the end, but the woman is still not convinced of his faith. Jacob rats out to the rector about Stu’s earlier romantic relationship, and he has to answer questions regarding it. Stu still has his earlier urge to beat up someone doing wrong to him, in this case, Jacob, but he composes himself against it.
One day while playing basketball in the seminary courtyard, Stu collapses to the ground with his legs no longer letting him get back up on his feet. When tests are done, and he is admitted to a hospital, he is informed of an extremely rare disease that has been found in his body. The disease, very close to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of the nervous systems that gradually takes away all control from all parts of the body, and the doctors report that there is no cure for it. They also inform him that he has at most one year before his organs start to fail, gradually pushing him towards imminent death. He is now as sad as angry at God for trying to take away even the life of religion that he has only started to enjoy and feels at peace with, but also remains resolute to keep at this life. With the help of other priests at his seminary, he goes around preaching and trying to help those in discomfort, with a lot of trouble in his own body as his hands lose the ability to be moved. During this time, Carmen visits him at the seminary and finally accepts his faith and suffering for religion; she also tells him of her engagement to a man, and Stu expresses his happiness for her. Soon though, the rector informs Stu that the church could no longer support his endeavors at becoming a priest and nor could ordain him, as the man can no longer use his hands, meaning that he won’t be able to perform the daily rites in a church. Stu now completely breaks down, and that night he crawls to the altar out of grief, anger, and desperation. Ham calls up Stu’s father, and Bill comes to take his suffering son away from the church. As Stu’s body starts to break down quite rapidly now, and he is gaining a lot of weight, Bill and Kathleen look after him and try to nurse him as much as they can.
‘Father Stu’ Ending Explained: How Does Stu Finally Preach His Religion?
One morning during this time, Stu’s parents dress him up in formal clothes, and Bill too dresses up very well, much unlike his usual behavior, which makes Stu wonder where they might be going. The son has no idea as to what is about to happen and is even more baffled when his father’s truck breaks down mid-way, and the father walks his wheelchair for the rest of the journey. They finally arrive at the church where Stu had been attending seminary, and they are met by Kathleen and Carmen. Initially thinking why they would want to get him married as he only had very little time to live, Stu sees a large group of people gathered inside the church to attend mass, and also his rector and other priests waiting for him. Carmen now tells him that the parishioners from their church had filed a special petition to the Diocese of Helena to ordain Stu with the priesthood, and the bishop had allowed it. Stu is ordained, and he holds his first mass where he preaches about his own life and condition, drawing parallels to the sufferings of Jesus Christ himself, and says how he now looks at his sufferings as the ultimate gift from God. He soon develops a cherishing relationship with the religious people of Montana and continues to preach even after he is put up at a special care facility when his physical condition deteriorates. He also holds confessions there as people form queues outside to hear him speak, and Jacob visits him for one such confession. The young man confesses that he had always been forced by his parents to become a priest, and that he had never had any interest in it. Father Stu asks him to try to look for other ways to serve God, as forcing actions on himself is not true devotion and therefore not worth the pain.
“Father Stu” ends here with some audio and video clips of the actual boxer-turned-priest who continued to serve his religion till he passed away at the age of fifty. The self-realization that comes over the man, as presented in the film, does ease not only his own life but also that of his parents, who are seen finally at peace and acceptance with their life at the very end. Bill also joins a support group to help with his alcoholism, and he realizes that, despite having lost both their sons, spending the rest of his life with love and support for his wife is the only way to be at peace. In this way, the once violent man who now turned into a priest had helped not thousands but at least perhaps a few hundred people around him.
“Father Stu” is a 2022 Drama Biopic film directed by Rosalind Ross.