Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) — Loving the unlovable

“He is not silent; He is waiting.”

Lissa’s rating: The Hawaiian language and I just do not get along. Do you have any idea how hard it is to spell Kalaupapa? (Please don’t ask me to pronounce it.)

Lissa’s review: Historical dramas, particularly those that focus on “man’s cruelty to man” can be very difficult to make and to review. It often seems to me that those making the movie feel that the importance of their subject will automatically lend depth to the movie. Pearl Harbor and Amistad are prime examples, in my opinion. On the other hand, reviewers (or at least, this reviewer), feels hesitant in criticizing these sorts of movies, because over-sensitive types take your criticism of the movie as criticism of the group that the movie focuses on, and who wants that? Historical dramas can be brilliant, but not all of them are.

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien isn’t brilliant, but it doesn’t remotely sink to the depths of Pearl Harbor or Titanic. It also doesn’t rise to the heights of Schindler’s List or Life Is Beautiful. But it’s quite edifying, and an interesting portrayal of a time in history many would rather forget. It’s a bit hard to get your hands on (only Hollywood Video had it around us), but if you’re into history, it’s a good rent.

The movie is just what the title states, the story of Father Damien, a missionary priest who came to work at the leprosy colony in Hawaii in 1873. As far as I know the story is historically accurate, with one small exception I’ll mention in the History section. The focus is both on Damien’s work on the island, and his work with those off it, as he tried to raise awareness and obtain supplies and treatment for those in the colony.

The movie itself rests on the shoulders of David Wenham, who plays Father Damien. Wow. I have a new favorite actor. You’ve probably seen David Wenham before — he played Faramir in The Two Towers and Return of the King. He also played Audrey in Moulin Rouge! I first got interested in him when a friend told me about the Audrey-Faramir connection. They’re such different roles that I was impressed by his versatility. Father Damien is yet another drastically different role- a forthright man with few social graces but a selfless soul that is willing to devote his life to the people that society would rather forget. Wenham’s performance is understated and humble. He doesn’t turn Damien into a perfect figure, but rather a real man frustrated by aspects of his duty, yet still selfless and giving until the end.

The supporting cast also has its strengths, although the chemistry necessary seems lacking at times. I particularly enjoyed Leo McKern as Bishop Maigret, Damien’s strongest ally. Again, the performance here is understated, not making Maigret out to be a saint, but a good man who is understanding of what is needed- not only by the colony but the personal needs of his priest. It always pleases me to see elder clergy portrayed in a positive manner. Tom Wilkinson, always a favorite with me, turns in another fine performance as Brother Dutton. But I was not impressed with Kris Kristofferson as the cattle rancher at the top of the trail. Ponderous accent, John-Wayne-like performance, and not really very moving or good at all. I also thought that Sam Neill was saddled with a stiff role as the Prime Minister. Oh well. They can’t all be winners, or you might have actually heard of this movie.

With the deep subject matter and the powerhouse performances, you’d think a good review would be inevitable. And it will get one. But… there’s always a but.

The problem with Molokai is that it pulls its punches, particularly at the beginning. When you first enter the community, you don’t see the conditions that are described. You don’t really see the ravages of leprosy, the fear the patients felt, or the immoral behavior that ran rampant. You’re TOLD about it, but you don’t see it.

I think this is caution — and too much of it — on the part of the writer and director. Leprosy is a terrible disease that leaves very visible evidence, and it’s not pretty to look at. As a result, we’re kept away from the patients at first. We don’t get that first hand glimpse of what they’re suffering, I think because the director is afraid it will turn our stomachs and alienate us from those that we’re sympathizing with. Same thing with the immoral behavior. Molokai was a terrible place to be sent. Theft, abuse, and forced prostitution ran rampant. The movie does expose this, but not to the degree one might expect. I think what the writer found was a conundrum. How do you make the viewer understand this, but not lose their sympathy for the very people Damien has come to save? What results from both of these decisions is that we are not intimately involved with the patients. Where as in Schindler’s List each of the principle Jews had a name, a background, and a story. That doesn’t happen in Molokai. We don’t know where these most of the patients came from, what most of their names are, or their personal relationships.

What we’re left with is a very annoying soundtrack of disembodied coughing and a glimpse at Peter O’Toole as an angry Protestant patient in the advanced stages of the disease. O’Toole’s character is a doctor that treated leprosy, a white man as opposed to a native Hawaiian, and disconnected from the community. He’s our doorway into the patients, and while O’Toole’s performance is good, the character doesn’t quite serve as an adequate bridge from our world to this one.

At times the movie feels like a documentary, stiff and disjointed. The events that happened in Father Damien’s life are told, but we don’t always see the way they connect. And yet, as Father Damien becomes angrier and angrier at the situation, we’re drawn in. The humanity of the characters begins to emerge, and by the time the end comes, we care, and it’s moving.

It’s not Schindler’s List. I cried a bit during the movie, but I also cry at Mufasa’s death in The Lion King and the wedding in Father of the Bride, so I’m not the best gauge of these things. It’s not entertaining, but it’s not meant to be. However, it’s an interesting, touching story of a very selfless man, and it’s a movie very worth seeing. Definitely check it out.

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