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Molokai: The Story of Father Damien Reviews

Filmmakers rarely capture the psychology of religious life, and while Paul Cox’s decorous biopic isn’t in the same league as DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1950) or THE NUN’S STORY (1959), it doesn’t strike many false notes. In the 1800's, leprosy has become such a scourge in Hawaii that Prime Minister Gibson (Sam Neill) banishes the afflicted to the island of Molokai. When Bishop Maigret (Leo McKern) and Father Fouesnel (Derek Jacobi) request a priest for these lost souls, Father Damien (David Wenham) volunteers. Father Damien is in for a rude awakening when he arrives on Molokai: He imagined he'd be consoling the afflicted, not dealing with rampant lawlessness and zero medical care. After fixing up a chapel, he shutters a whore house and reopens it as an infirmary. During years of tending his flock, Father Damien risks his own health by reaching out to the infected and inevitably contracts leprosy himself. Although Princess Liliuokalani (Kate Ceberano) bravely visits Molokai with humanitarian intentions, the government refuses to lavish resources on this no man’s land. So Father Damien defies church rules and improves conditions for the lepers by speaking out in the foreign press through his brother. In the wake of the resulting international outcry, philanthropists donate money and new volunteers like Brother Dutton (Tom Wilkinson) join the crusade. Father Damien has less luck securing the services of a doctor; the only one he persuades to come to Molokai soon flees, unable to cope with the chaos and crush of needy patients. While politicians and religious leaders quibble over bureaucratic matters, Father Damien quietly continues his mission, even as he suffers the advanced stages of the disease. By the time of his death, he's seen his dream come true. Nursing nuns join his hospital, and his legacy of diligent care giving seems secure. David Wenham’s economical performance summons up the austere dignity of priestly vocations. Unfortunately, the raw power of Father Damien’s heroism on the island is diminished by lifeless scenes of secular and clerical infighting on the mainland.