In Father Stu, Mark Wahlberg’s deeply personal new film, the titular character is looking for Hollywood fame, and love. A boxer-turned-supermarket clerk, who dabbles in commercial and television acting, he pursues Carmen (played by Teresa Ruiz), but she’s honest with him: “Let’s not waste either of our time,” she says. “I’m Catholic.” She won’t date someone who isn’t baptised.
Father Stu – out on Good Friday – feels like an inevitable project for Wahlberg, whose own life and faith were shaped by Father Jim Flavin, a retired priest of the Boston Archdiocese, who has been close with the actor since 1984. Flavin once joked that Wahlberg is “the best con artist I’ve ever met, but he’s worked really hard to change”. After his parents separated when he was 11, Wahlberg dropped out of school. After petty crimes and drug use, Wahlberg served 45 days in Boston’s infamous Deer Island prison for assault. The violent attack became a catalyst in Wahlberg’s life – a source of shame and, in many ways, a lifelong reminder of his fallen nature.
Wahlberg plays Father Stu in the film, based on the real life of Father Stuart Long. Born in Helena, Montana in 1963, Long played football at Carroll College, a Catholic college in his hometown (although he was agnostic at the time), but found his true athletic drive when he took up boxing. Long won the 1985 Golden Gloves heavyweight title for the state, and planned to turn his amateur career professional – but jaw surgery ended his dream.
Long moved from Montana to Los Angeles, where he hoped to star in action films. He rode around the city on a motorcycle: “I thought it would give me a better chance of getting a part.” Unfortunately, it nearly ended his life. A horrible motorcycle accident sent Long into hospital, and the recovery process changed him.
In the film, after Long recovers, he has a surprise for his girlfriend. He isn’t going to propose; he’s going to become a priest. “For Halloween?” His father Bill, played by Mel Gibson, is sceptical. (Gibson’s longtime girlfriend, Rosalind Ross, wrote and directed the film.)
A dedicated priest, Long’s pastoral life is derailed by inclusion body myositis, a rare, incurable autoimmune disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease that was diagnosed during his time in seminary at Mount Angel in Oregon. In the film, his superiors doubt that he can be an able pastor in such a condition.
The story about a workmanlike priest steeped in conversion and suffering is a perfect fit for Wahlberg. “I love the Church,” he has said in a recent interview, “but for me, it’s not about the Church so much as the guy who died to build it and his message.” Just as Wahlberg has been honest and open about his teenage crimes, his Catholicism has been the foundation of his view of family, and is becoming the centre of his artistic vision.
Wahlberg first learned of the real-life Father Stu while out to dinner with two priests, who told him the story of the boxer-turned-pastor, who died in 2014. “From that point on,” Wahlberg has said, “it was my mission to get the movie made.” Although the film was shot in a breakneck 30 days, it took six years to get rolling—a testament to Wahlberg’s belief that the story be true to Long’s actual, complicated life, as well as true to a Catholic vision.
“We wanted to be brutally honest,” Wahlberg said, when questioned by EWTN about the film’s rough language and violence. “We want to make sure that this movie is not exclusive to Catholics and devout people. This is inclusive to everybody who needs people. You remember what God’s mission was, right? He didn’t come to save the righteous.”
The film is notable for its mainstream pedigree. Wahlberg clearly sees the film as an evangelising force: “The mission is to plant those seeds, to blossom and to do God’s work.”
Father Stu enters a tradition of cinematic pugilist-priests. Although the iconic 1973 film The Exorcist is legendary for its synthesis of theology and horror, it is truly a character study of an unlikely priest, the psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller).
Early in the film, Karras – stern, dark-haired, resolute in his strides – walks to his mother’s apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. Once inside, he takes off his collar and sets it on his dresser. Other than a few photos of him as a child, the walls are lined with images of Karras as a boxer: a front pose, another of him sending a jab into a heavy bag. Karras pauses before the photos as if they are nearly iconographic. Trophies from amateur tournaments attest to his skill.
Soon Karras is crouched over a small table, wearing a white t-shirt, dipping bread in soup – in this confined space, he is no longer a father, but a son. It is a masterful scene – a few minutes of melancholic calm among the film’s surrounding horror – that captures the paradox of Karras’s character. When his mother says to him, “You worry for something”, she serves as the equivalent of the audience; Karras is unable to avoid suffering in this story.
Yet he is chosen to assist during the exorcism of young Regan precisely because he is a fighter. When homicide detective William Kinderman first meets Karras sprinting around Georgetown University’s cinder track, the officer says people told him he could easily recognise Karras “because he looks like a boxer”. Kinderman, a cinephile, says Karras looks like John Garfield in the 1947 film Body and Soul. It is a passing comment, but it renders Karras as a boxer incarnate – the manifestation of a cinematic boxer, an archetype of sorts.
Karras and Father Stu are men formed by suffering. Neither is made conventionally whole at the end of their narratives, but material and ephemeral healing is not the centre of their stories. Although both boxers, they are far from invincible, and their vulnerability suggests that the priesthood is best understood not as an armour of certitude but a gentle, tremendous, tenuous gift.
Father Stu is released on 15 April
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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