Molokai: The Story of Fr. Damien (1999)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Paul Cox
Run Time
53 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

 Rated PG. Running time:  1 hour 53 min.

Our content rating (0-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 …(He) emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…”

            Philippians 2:7

 This Australian film chronicles the last fifteen years in the life of “The Apostle to the Lepers,” Father Damien De Veuster (David Wenham). A Belgian priest already serving in the Hawaiian Islands, Fr. Damien responds to the call issued by Bishop Maigret (Leo McKern) to go and take charge of the leper colony that the government had established on the island of Molokai. As had happened to so many peoples in the New World, the coming of the white man had brought many disastrous diseases to the native population. A plague of Hansen’s disease had spread so rapidly that the Queen’s government had adopted a policy of strict segregation for anyone infected. Molokai had a shelf of volcanic land which was bounded by steep cliffs rising over 3000 feet to a plateau. The highlands were populated by non-infected farmers, the lepers confined to the strip of land bordered by the fierce breakers of the sea and the steep cliffs. They were expected to raise their own food, but most were either too weakened by the disease to engage in such hard work, or were too traumatized by their seizure and forced separation from their families.

The Bishop admonishes Fr. Damien not to touch any of the sick, but once the priest sees the horrible living conditions and the ruined limbs of the victims, he is so moved to compassion that he not only touches a woman, but also embraces her. Soon he is engaged in putting the shabby chapel back into order, and also attempting to bring order into the lives of the people. Many of them, having given up all hope of a decent life, had sought escape in gambling, sex, alcohol and drugs. At times the priest invades their den to rescue a particular parishioner, at the same time admonishing the other revelers to live better lives. After a while the newly cleansed chapel begins to fill with worshippers responding to Damien’s preaching of a gospel of God’s love and the worth and dignity of the individual.

The overseer of the island Rudolph Meyer (Kris Kristofferson), a bit skeptical when the “do- gooder” first lands on the island, gives the priest good advice when he tells him to take up pipe smoking so that he can stand the stench of decaying flesh. Fr. Damien does, and although recoiling inwardly, he reaches out to everyone with his life-affirming love. The conditions are wretched, there being no beds, indeed, until he commandeers a building, not even a hospital for those too ill to care for themselves. The dying find whatever shelter they can under trees and bushes. One of these is the Englishman William Williamson (Peter O’Toole), whom Fr. Damien finds swathed in filthy rags and lying under a tree with a beautiful view of the ocean. Although he resists Damien’s invitation to move to the hospital and to convert to his faith, Williamson becomes a friend to the priest. We see how important this is to Damien when, at last, he holds the dying man in his arms and pleads that if his friend dies, with whom will he talk?

 Life on the island is indeed lonely for Damien, he not even being able to make his confession to a fellow priest. Although Bishop Maigret sometimes regards his priest as a nuisance, with so many requests and demands for aid for the lepers, the prelate also cherishes him. When no priest is found willing to go to the island—leprosy being the AIDS of its time, with many doctors believing that the chief means of its spread was through sexual contact—the good Bishop himself sets sail. However, there is no pier or dock on Molokai, so when a boat bearing Fr. Damien approaches the ship and the Bishop prepares to disembark, the ship’s captain tells him that he will neither let Damien board nor the Bishop to disembark. When the distressed Damien asks if the Bishop speaks French, and the answer is yes, the humiliated priest swallows his pride and makes his confession with most of the ship’s crews and passengers looking on. This is but one of many incidents in which the priest must empty himself, the worst being the time when he agrees to have his genitals examined by a doctor accusing him of contacting leprosy—yes, Damien suffers the ultimate cross, the disease which makes his identification with his people a total one—through sexual intimacy. We do see him tempted by a comely Hawaiian woman who senses his loneliness, but he sends her away. Of course, the examination verifies what the priest has declared in a signed affidavit, that he has never broken his vow of celibacy. Based on Hilde Eynikel’s biography of Blessed Fr. Damien de Veuster, Molokai is a moving depiction of a man willing to give everything to his Lord, even his health.

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