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Father Stu review – Mark Wahlberg’s holy redemption tale commits a multitude of sins

The actor stars alongside Mel Gibson in a watchable but stiflingly sincere drama about a boxer-turned-priest, based on a true story

“You’re doing a porno?” exclaims Jacki Weaver’s embattled mother Kathleen to Mark Wahlberg’s Stuart Long, just moments before he announces he’s joining the priesthood instead. It's an odd moment of what appears to be ironic self-referentiality in the otherwise ramshackle and utterly sincere Father Stu (recalling Wahlberg’s career breakthrough in Boogie Nights), in which Weaver serves as the undeniable but underutilized MVP.

Wahlberg plays the real-life titular figure, a boxer/alcoholic-turned-Catholic priest who died in 2014 from IBM (a muscular wasting disease). The focus is very much on Stu’s redemption and shift from ageing amateur boxer to devout Catholic via an attempt to become an actor and a romantic dalliance with the religious Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). Into this also comes the absolution of Stu’s estranged dad, Bill (Mel Gibson, convincingly grizzled).

Wahlberg has always worked best as an overconfident bullshitter (see the aforementioned Boogie Nights, or any of the action blockbusters he regularly stars in), weaponizing his charisma to schmooze and dodge his way out of danger. But the role of Stu requires sincerity and an emotional honesty that simply is not in his wheelhouse, leading to a performance where you’re not sure if his shift towards priesthood is for real or simply a misguided means of winning the heart of an attractive woman. It doesn’t help that first-time director Rosalind Ross’s work is lacking in confidence: edits happen a shift too quickly, scenes are drenched in saccharine music, and chunks of character development just seem to disappear in between scenes.

It’s obvious that the film is a passion project for Wahlberg (who also produces here) and Gibson, both devout Catholics, but there’s also something a bit queasy about their presence. After all, here are two Hollywood stars with controversial histories leading a film in which they get to steer their own redemption arcs. Of course, the capacity of a person to change is one of the central tenets of Christianity, which makes the film’s interpretation of Catholic teaching even more curious: Father Stu suggests that life is exclusively framed around suffering, the purpose of which is to bring us closer to Christ and to God (an end credits clip of the real-life Father Stu discussing these ideas confirms as much).

There's no room for doubt in this narrative as it stands – none of the glorious guilt or greyness that elevates, say, Scorsese’s faith-based films like Silence and The Last Temptation of Christ into high art – and yet in Father Stu’s absolutely steadfast desire to view the world through the prism of suffering, there is something strangely beguilingly. You won’t find many films which so determinedly pick a single worldview and stick to it like glue, eschewing entirely the possibility of other existences (even within its own vision of Catholicism, which the film seems to completely misread). It’s not a feature to commend, exactly, but it does mean that, for all its faults, Father Stu's deeply strange worldview makes it oddly watchable in places.

Father Stu is released in UK cinemas on 13 May.

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