Running Time: 123 mins
The many Catholic men in Australia named Damien, or who took that name at confirmation, attest to the impact that the story of the Leper Priest had on the Catholic Community here. Australian director Paul Cox was one of them.
I have vivid memories of my older brother's book on Fr Damien. It included graphic photographs of him on Molokai. It also promoted the apocryphal story of how, after contracting Hanson's Disease, he addressed his congregation as "my fellow lepers". In fact, and even more poignantly, he did this from the day he arrived.
In 1866 a leprosy epidemic sweeps through the Hawaiian islands. The sufferers are quarantined by the British Colonial Administration on the island of Molokai. Some of them are Catholic. In 1872 the Island's Chief Administrator Meyer (Kris Kristofferson) requests a chaplain from Bishop Maigret (McKern) who calls his priests together and seeks a volunteer. The young, healthy Belgian missionary, Fr Damien (Wenham) volunteers to go. He is told that he is not to touch anyone and that he will be replaced within a three months. From the moment he gets off the boat Fr Damien disobeys the first instruction and dies on Molokai 16 years later, aged 49.
Molokai is the portrait of a saint. Paul Cox is not interested, however, in a plaster saint who never had a cross word, a bad thought or many temptations. Based on Hilde Eynikel's thoroughly researched biography, the screenplay by John Briley brings alive a man who is transparently holy, not perfect. Cox is true to these sources.
Fr Damien takes on all comers for the sake of his dying community. He battles his Bishops, his Provincial (Jacobi), the Prime Minister (Neil) and Dr Kalewis (Aden Young) to get them to provide the care and dignity his parishioners deserve. When his requests fall on deaf ears, Damien appeals to Princess Liliukalani (Ceberano) and the press in Europe.
Minus the big budgets, this long awaited film is a little like the heroism of The Mission meets The Piano's Pacific beaches. Like its subject it is not a perfect film. Some scenes have obvious errors and should have been re-shot. The story gets bogged down in the middle and at 122 minutes feels a little long. There are glaring discontinuities in the lighting and the
sound and, for all the attention to liturgical and ecclesiastical details, there are still mistakes. But these do not rob Molokai of an extraordinary power to tell the story of Christian sacrificial love.
David Wenham does an outstanding job in mastering the proselytising bravado, vulnerability and humanity of the young missionary. He also gets Damien's Belgian/English accent just right, which can't said for Chris Haywood's too obvious and broad Australian accent. Leo McKern is excellent as the Bishop and so is Peter O'Toole as the atheistic Williamson. Jacobi is a little too arch as the envious Provincial and though her meeting with the lepers is a very moving moment, we probably could have done without Kate Ceberano's song.
Molokai doesn't just have one big climax at the end, but several arresting moments throughout. Paul Grabowsky's haunting setting of selections from the Latin Requiem Mass is a gem on its own, and helps tell this moving story.
The surviving patients from Molokai were delighted to appear in this film and so together with the make-up team, who clearly demonstrate the grip the disease took on Fr Damien, we vividly see how Hanson's Disease ravages the human body. Molokai is shot on location in a corner of earth which mirrors heaven, but the set designers have replicated Fr Damien's village which he so often thought came close to hell.
What is most important about Molokai, however, is the message of fidelity, sacrifice and love it contains. It resonates as strongly now as ever. The Blessed Damien of Molokai left our world the richer for having graced it. It would be a shame if any student in a Catholic College school not gracing a cinema to be inspired by the richness of his example.
Richard Leonard SJ