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MOLOKAI – Inspiring story of the leper priest

Starring: Starring David Wenham, Peter O’Toole, Sam Neil, Derek Jacobi, Leo McKern and Kate Ceberano
Director: Paul Cox
Rated: PG

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 of Molokai, 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 (Leo McKern) who calls his priests together and seeks a volunteer.

The young, healthy Belgian missionary, Fr Damien (David Wenham) volunteers to go. He is told that he is not to touch anyone and that he will be replaced within 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.

Fr Damien takes on all comers for the sake of his dying community. He battles his bishops, his provincial (Derek Jacobi), the Prime Minister (Sam Neill) 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 (Kate Ceberano) and the press in Europe.

This long-awaited film is not perfect. 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 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 be 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.

What is most important about Molokai, however, is the message of fidelity, sacrifice and love it contains. It resonates as strongly now as ever. Blessed Damien of Molokai left our world the richer for having graced it.

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