Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999)

1999, Unapix Entertainment. Directed by Paul Cox. David Wenham, Kris Kristofferson, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A-
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? ++2-2
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: Images of disfigurement and death; a brief, shadowy depiction of a small-scale massacre; minor profanity; a restrained depiction of resistance to sexual temptation; a reference to impure thoughts and actions; two strange, brief scenes involving seemingly out-of-character, impious behavior and comments from Damien.

A National Catholic Register “Video/DVD Picks” capsule review.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Based on Hilde Eynikel’s biography of Blessed Fr. Damien de Veuster, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien tells the edifying, at times wrenching story of the 19th-century “Apostle to the Lepers,” who for fifteen years lived and finally died in a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i.

A native of Belgium, ordained in Honolulu, at the age of 33 Fr. Damien volunteered to become the first and only priest serving the leper colony. There he spent himself attending as best he could to the people’s needs, both spiritual and physical, offering the sacraments but also dressing wounds, helping to shelter them from the elements, even constructing coffins and digging graves.

This inspiring, episodic biopic depicts Fr. Damien (David Wenham, Peter Jackson’s Faramir in The Lord of the Rings) as a man consumed by a singular sense of duty and obligation, lacking any thought but the spiritual and temporal good of those in his care and the good of his own soul. To church and state leaders in O’ahu he ceaselessly campaigns for more funds and medicine, nuns to help with the care of the sick, and for more frequent confession for himself.

In one of the film’s neatest exchanges, all three of Damien’s issues come together in a single stroke: Told that conditions on Moloka’i are too harsh to permit nuns, Damien protests that the settlement seems a veritable paradise whenever he asks for money — an argument that prompts a disapproving diocesan official to criticize Damien for lack of humility, to which Damien retorts that he will mention in his next confession!

Often compared to Mother Teresa, Damien differs from the nun of Calcutta in at least one important respect: He is openly and unapologetically evangelistic, zealously striving to bring those to whom he ministers to the Catholic faith and the sacraments. In this he is not always successful, and some of the film’s best scenes involve Peter O’Toole as a drily ironic, tenacious Anglican patient who resists Damien’s best efforts to offer him the sacraments.

Refreshingly, though Damien often locks horns with religious and secular authorities, he is not the only sympathetically depicted cleric in the film. His first local ordinary, Bishop Maigret (Leo McKern), is also a positive figure, though the same can’t be said for his snarky assistant, nor does the bishop who replaces him make as good an impression.

No plaster saint, Damien is shown to be susceptible to temptation, and though his moral commitment is unswerving, his confession is abject and frank. Discomfiting as these elements may be, the film’s real problematic content is confined to about thirty seconds’ worth of footage in a pair of brief, inexplicable scenes, one involving a head-scratching reference to Hawaii’s “old gods,” the other involving a presumptively invalid wedding Damien initially refuses to permit.

I’m currently reading a pair of Fr. Damien biographies, in part to see if I can find any basis in fact for these two jarring sequences. If I learn anything, I’ll revise this review accordingly.

In any case, its faults and limitations notwithstanding, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien remains an inspiring, challenging depiction of Christian service and charity.

Tags: Saints & Beati, Drama, Religious Themes

Related Content

Mail: Re: Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

In your original review of Molokai, you wrote that you were reading biographies of Fr. Damien because a couple of scenes in the film didn’t ring true. Did you find anything to disprove these scenes?

I found nothing either to directly justify or to directly debunk either strange scene, but it doesn’t change my basic skepticism toward the scenes.

It is possible that Damien had some sort of sensibility regarding Hawaii’s “old gods” that might have seemed scandalous to some, but I doubt that the movie line accurately reflects this. It is also not impossible that Damien officiated at a wedding that would not have been permitted by canon law, but I suspect this would have involved considerations not presented in the film.

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