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:: Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

Director Paul Cox has always shown a great interest in telling stories of human suffering. This film, the story of Father Damien deVeuster of Belgium, sees the light after being made in 1999. It depicts the values of a dedicated priest who gives up his life to help those shunned because of leprosy.

Father Damien (David Wenham) was born in 1840 and ventured to Hawaii as a missionary in 1865. He worked among the natives until 1873 when he volunteered to help the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He sacrificed himself for the benefit of the badly neglected occupants of the island until 1889.

The first documented case of leprosy was discovered in 1846. Within a few years, the disease became widespread to the point where victims were quarantined on Molokai to stop the spread. Father Damien arrived there and saw the deplorable conditions. People virtually slept in the open. There were few buildings and a severe lack of medical care. He set out to do as much as he could, repairing the church, building shelters, and caring for the sick. His pleas for government assistance were ignored. Corrupt officials within the government and the church diverted money that was donated to the cause.

Father Damien persisted with his efforts in doing everything humanely possible to make life bearable for the sufferers. He was warned by Bishop Maigret (Leo McKern), one who befriended him, not to touch the lepers or else he would catch the disease. But who is Father Damien to ignore the heartfelt pleas for help, especially the children who embraced him in love and affection. He went on make conditions better, despite still being ignored for so long to have the presence of nuns on the island.

Father Damien’s dedication was finally acknowledged when he received some help in the form of Brother Dutton (Tom Wilkinson). A team of nuns arrived to assist in caring for the sick and dying. Even Princess Liliuokalani (Kate Ceberano) visited the island in person after hearing about Father Damien’s efforts.

Molokai boasts a strong cast of recognisable actors in supporting roles: Peter O’Toole, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kris Kristofferson, Leo McKern, Tom Wilkinson, and Sam Neill. This is David Wenham’s best performance in his career to date. He plays an inspiring role with great zest and energy. It’s an important role too.

All this aid, there could have been a little more expansion within the story. One dramatic moment, when lepers are tossed off a boat and drown, showed extreme cruelty, yet not much was made of it. It almost begs the question, despite raising awareness of Father Damien’s efforts, the whole Molokai landscape, and showing the typical greed and ignorance of governments then, whether this could have been better served as a documentary. However, Molokai is still a moving, well-acted film, which portrays a dynamic person, and deserves to be seen.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three steps to becoming a saint. Then in 1995, Pope John Paul II declared him beatified, the second step.