Produced by Grietje Lammertyn, Tarsicius Vanhuysse
Starring David Wenham, Derek Jacobi, Sam Neill, Kris Kristofferson, Leo McKern, Peter O’Toole, Aden Young, Kate Ceberano, Alice Krige.
Original music by Heinrich W. Berger, Paul Grabowski, Wim Mertens Cinematography by Nino Martinetti
Director Paul Cox has frequently been referred to as
Despite the production conflicts the film is inspiring and impeccably acted by a superb cast of high calibre actors in a wildly beautiful setting. Molokai is the story of Father Damien, a Belgian Catholic priest who in 1873 volunteered as a missionary to the leper colony on the
David Wenham plays a sincere, complex Fr Damien, who burns passionately to serve his fellow man in God’s service and also suffers from lonely melancholy. Impatient and fiery-tempered with tight-fisted authorities, in direct contravention of his bishop’s orders not to touch anyone, he open-heartedly embraces the lepers in his charge. In the face of so much deprivation and suffering, compassion is at first the only thing he can give. While others recoil from the weeping sores, the deformities and the smell of rotting flesh, Damien moves close without hesitation, his personal connection with those who long to be touched easing some of their hideous burden. Incidentally and ironically, the Belgian producers had issue with these scenes, demanding that the more confronting and graphic scenes be cut.
A young girl’s leprosy is met with typically inhumane treatment. Her personhood forfeited, she stands silently while the doctor lifts her torn shift with a pointer and talks about her in the third person. The fearful, disapproving 19th century attitude was based on the wrong assumption that leprosy is the fourth stage of syphilis and thereby God’s judgment on the unrighteous. Ironically, after she is condemned to
Wild contrasts in the stupendous beauty of the island itself include deep blue ocean, fierce waves breaking thunderously on rocky volcanic shores and steep mountains clouded by mist. Damien is as awestruck by it as by the misery and privations he witnesses on his way to the abandoned, decrepit church. Relegated to the windy end of the island, the colony comprises dark, ramshackle huts of weathered scrap timber stolen from those too ill to prevent it by those not yet so powerless. Food is short where people doubt their health will allow them to harvest what they might plant. No comfort is afforded these sufferers as they scrape subsistence from paradise.
Scenes shot here are filled with life and the ever-present wind. Contrasting scenes in government and church offices in
Bishop Maigret (a rotund, sleepy Leo McKern) is the only priest sympathetic enough to hear Damien’s confession on the quarantined
Kris Kristofferson plays a tough, non-infected resident farmer supplying fresh food to the colony, pragmatic enough to keep infection at arm’s length. Chris Haywood is Clayton Strawn, a drunken thief who finds redemption in love. A moving performance of heartfelt loving kindness is that of Princess Lilioukalani (Australian jazz/pop singer Kate Ceberano). Tom Wilkinson is remarkable as a lay priest who assists Damien. Aden Young, as a young doctor bringing a new medical treatment, shows how we ourselves might react to the stench of maggot-ridden bodies lying untended on the floor of the so-called ‘dying hut.’ Other memorable performances include Peter O’Toole as a dying Protestant English former medical assistant, an acerbic cynic Damien is unable to persuade to move from his wind-wracked lean-to with its soothing view of the sea, but wins as a friend.
“You can’t die till I’ve converted you!” jokes Fr Damien to him, and later, showing his loneliness, “You can’t die, I’ll have no-one to talk to!”
Insults follow injury even to the end when Damien, suffering advanced leprosy, is examined for syphilis and nuns promised him five years earlier finally arrive. Thankfully, extreme pathos is offset by some detachment allowing a documentary feel to the film, though at times the intentions of the director are indistinct. One or two beginnings of storylines fail to have any follow through and there is some rather strange subtext involving the nuns and Fr Leonor. However, the incongruous
The force of
© Avril Carruthers June 20th 2002
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