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Film / Daens

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Daens is a 1992 Belgian film, directed by Stijn Coninx, which was nominated for an Academy Award. It is a biographical film based on a novel by Louis Paul Boon about the 19th century Belgian priest Adolf Daens and the emergence of Christian Democracy in Belgium. It stars Jan Decleir in the title role, Antje De Boeck as female factory worker Nette Scholliers, Michael Pas as socialist agitator Jan De Meeter and Gérard Desarthe as the villainous industrial baron and politician Charles Woeste.

At the end of the 19th century Belgium is in the process of industrialisation and facing an economic crisis. Working conditions in the town of Aalst are squalid and when economic crisis interferes with the profitability of the textile mills, the proprietors lay off all male workers and replace them with women and children, who are cheaper to employ. The charismatic but recalcitrant priest Adolf Daens arrives in Aalst to live with his brother and he witnesses the harsh impact of industrial exploitation on the workers and the wavering faith of the workers in the Roman Catholic Church and the attractions of socialism. Families are torn apart by unemployment and alcoholism and women and children die due to hunger, cold and fatigue. Furthermore the women in the mills are sexually harassed and the children used for dangerous chores. Unable to stand by idly, Daens used the printing press of his brother to denounce the injustice of the industrial system. His efforts pay off when Parliament sends a committee to investigate grievances, but without representives sympathetic to their cause Daens knows that little will change. When universal suffrage is adopted by Parliament, Daens is catapulted into national politics where he champions the rights of the workers. However, conservative forces conspire against him and force him to choose between the workers and his priestly vocation.

This film provides examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with Jefke's funeral, presided over by a defrocked Daens having retired from Parliament after death threats. Daens makes a short speech on how the struggle for workers' rights has only just begun and that they can only count among their allies those who suffer alongside them. But as Nette mourns Jefke, Jan De Meeter vows to marry her and name their first son after Jefke. The ending credits reveal that Daens was re-elected and history reveals that both the worker's movement and Christian Democracy acheived great successes.
  • Bread And Circus: Woeste tries to win the election by giving the electorate free beer and sausages.
  • Children Are Innocent: Subverted. Whilst the young boy named Jefke is good at heart, the poverty and hunger cause him to steal potatos from an elderly woman.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Justified, since the setting is 19th century Belgium, which was highly Catholic.
  • Converting for Love: Subverted. Jan De Meeter makes statements to this end. He will marry Nette in church if Daens is the priest in charge.
  • Corrupt Church: Subverted. The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium sides with the Catholic industrial barons, but at the start of the film Pope Leo XIII has promulgated the encyclical Rerum Novarum which exhorts the priests to fight for social justice. The industrial and political establishment conspire with the senior clerics to have Daens meet the Pope in Rome, but it turns out to be a ruse to distract Daens and use his absence to move against his supporters. In Rome Daens keeps being turned away by the Pope's secretary and eventually receives a reprimand to return to Belgium and dismantle his movement or face the consequences.
  • Forbidden Romance: Nette Scholliers and Jan De Meeter fall in love. In those days it was not acceptable for a Catholic girl to date an atheist, especially if said atheist is also a socialist.
  • Good Shepherd: Daens is a independent minded priest who places more value on the spirit of the Gospel than on the directives of the church hierarchy. His belief in the Gospel and Rerum Novarum as well as the abject poverty of the workers cause him to embark on a crusade to secure their rights.
  • Hiding Behind Religion: Like Daens and many factory workers, the factory owners are Catholics. They go to church, but they leave when Daens preaches the Gospel of Matthew and insists on (voting) rights for the working classes.
  • Holier Than Thou: The attitude of priest Ponnet, Daens's colleague. Whereas Daens is a social reformer who seeks to bring the Gospel to fruition in Aalst's slums, Ponnet is an unimaginative by-the-book lackey of the senior clergy and the industrial establisment who is more interested in reading Mass than preaching the Gospel.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Schmitt, the factory overseer, abuses his power to sexually harass women workers. He rapes Nette to punish her for her relentless support for Daens.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Priest Ponnet is more than eager to kiss Bishop Stillemans' ring. Leads to a Funny Moment.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: The Church punishes Daens by assigning him as pastor to an asylum of senile priests. Daens responds by saying that they don't require his services since they are evidently with God note . The superintendant of the asylum has Daens defrocked for his disobedience.
  • Suspiciously Specific Sermon: Daens usurps the spot of his conservative colleague Ponnet on the pulpit and brilliantly turns Ponnet's Pre-Approved Sermon into one of these. In the sermon he appeals to the Gospel of Matthew, imploring the factory owners to share with the poor and to improve working conditions as well as introduce a living wage. He denounces their hypocrisy and their unwillingness to use Dutch or to associate with their workers.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Vatican is full of these. They are are also prone to being influenced by vested Belgian interests.
  • Patron Saint: Saint Ursula is invoked as the patron saint of the factory Nette Scholliers works for. Her father is a member of a Catholic music group which is dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Daens gives one to Ponnet near the end of the film. Also doubles as a Take That!. Jefke has been killed by a tiger (a circus animal) after he tried to steal the tiger's meat. But because Jefke didn't confess his sins, Ponnet refuses to bury him. Daens, now defrocked, offers to do it in his stead. Ponnet rebukes him and says Daens is no longer a priest and should not wear his cassock. Daens removes the cassock, saying the priesthood has nothing to do with the uniform. He assembles the crowd, recites the Lord's Prayer and leaves a defeated Ponnet behind.
  • Sacred Language: Latin is said during Tridentine Mass, the Second Vatican Council still being 70 years in the future.
  • Scare Campaign: The way Woeste tries to win elections. Ponnet is his scaremonger, threatening the Catholics with hell and brimstone if they vote for Woeste's opponents.
  • Sleazy Politician: Woeste.
  • Truth in Television: Based on true events. The working conditions in the factories really were that bad.
  • Turbulent Priest: Daens. He is an ally of the workers. On the other hand Monsignor Stillemans, Daens's superior who has been tasked to keep Daens quiet, gets headaches from Daens's turbulence.