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MOVIE REVIEW: Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

Director: Paul Cox

Rating ***

When I was on the miniature Hawaiian island of Molokai, I did not go down to Kalaupapa, which is accessible only by burro, boat or plane. After I saw this movie, I wish I had visited the town where Father Damien battled to give the colony's 1,000 lepers hope, help and dignity, since I didn't get the full impact of his amazing story from the "uplands".

Father Damien, Hawaii's "Apostle of the Lepers", volunteered to go to the leper colony in 1873, at age 33. He eventually contracted leprosy (renamed Hansen's Disease) and died in 1889 at age 49. In the meantime, as the movie recounts, he fought the Hawaiian bureaucracy and the Church for financial assistance and for doctors, nuns and other supporters. While I thought the film overdid the ugliness and the suffering, it was a believable depiction of the horrible conditions. Lepers were dropped off boats near the settlement along with their belongings, and left to fend for themselves in the water. If they arrived alive, all they had to look forward to was a painful, lingering death in filthy lean-to's - until Father Damien was able to convince the authorities and the Church to send help. It took the nuns "one month to travel from New York to Honolulu," he notes, "and five years to go from Honolulu to Molokai."

Based on Hilde Eynikel's biography, this 1999 film boasts a stellar cast, including: Peter O'Toole as one of the lepers; Derek Jacobi as Father Leonor Fouesnel; Leo McKern as Bishop Maigret; Sam Neill as the slimy Prime Minister; and Kris Kristofferson as Rudolph Meyer. David Wenham is Father Damien, Kate Ceberano plays Princess Liliuokalani and many locals play themselves.

The grisly settlement is in stark contrast to Molokai's awesome scenery. Filmed on location in the original spot, the movie truly captures the soul of this remote, unblemished island. The wall of lush mountains, shrouded in morning mists, may cut the community off from the rest of the world, but provides a blessed beauty for all to behold. Crashing surf, volcanic rocks and ever-changing sunsets complete the sensual picture.

Today, the town is still home to fewer than 100 former patients, who are no longer contagious, thanks to sulfone drugs. They are free to leave, but have chosen to remain. Kalaupapa, set on a stunning peninsula jutting out into the Pacific ocean, can be seen from Palaau State Park, 1,700 feet up in the sun-dappled forest that the film records so beautifully.

Father Damien (Joseph) de Veuster was originally buried beside St. Philomena's church in Kalaupapa, but his body was sent to his native Belgium, where it is enshrined at Leuven. His right hand was later returned to Molokai and reburied in the original plot. He is being canonized, and has passed two of the three requisite steps for sainthood.