Molokai: The Story of

Father Damien (1999)

The edifying, at times wrenching, story of Damien de Veuster is vividly brought to life in Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, based on Hilde Eynikel’s biography of the 19th-century “Apostle to the Lepers,” who for 15 years lived and finally died in a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, where he tended to the physical and spiritual needs of his charges.

This inspiring, episodic biopic depicts Father 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 Oahu 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 Molokai 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 that 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 30 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, but later permits.

Though not perfect, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien remains an inspiring, challenging depiction of Christian service and charity.

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.