The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you…
The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.
Psalm 9:9-10; 17-18
Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side… James Russell Lowell
The Belgian film Daens is the most powerful social justice film that I have seen since Romero. Like the latter film, it tells the story of a real life priest, even though the script by director Stijn Coninx and his co-authors Louis Paul Boon and Francois Chevallier, is based on a novel by Pieter Daens. The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1993, but lost out to the more romantic French film Indocine. There is a romantic subplot in Daens, that between the female factory worker Nette Scholliers (Antje De Boeck) and an organizer for the Socialist Party, but the film really belongs to Jan Decleir whose portrayal of Fr. Adolph Daens is mesmerizing. The script packs an enormous amount of historical information about Belgium into its two and a quarter hours, and the epic scope of the scenes showing the teeming slums of the city of Aalst is remarkable, considering the limited budget of the film. The film, though taking place near the end of the 19th century, has much relevance to us today—if one wants to learn why the church went into such a steep decline in Europe in the 20th century, this is the film to see. It shows with painful clarity that the poor and working class did not abandon the church, but that the church abandoned them!
Born and raised in Aalst, Adolph Daens served a parish and a school, leaving both places amidst a cloud of controversy. His bishop regards him as overly difficult to get along with and would assign him to a place where he can do the least harm, but Daens rebels, returning to his hometown where his brother Pieter Daens (Wim Meuwissen) is a printer and publisher of the local Catholic newspaper. We see that Daens is again headed for trouble when, upon their first meeting, he clashes with the arrogant head of the local Catholic party Charles Woeste (Gerard Desarthe), who believes that the church’s duty is to support the status quo by keeping the poor in their place. That place is shown as a desperate one indeed, the factory owners, struggling to extract every cent of profit from their textile mills, replacing the men in their factories with women and children, who will work for far less wages. Twelve to fourteen hour-long days are common, with the children so tired and sleepy that many become injured as they crawl on the floor to gather the scraps beneath the relentless shuttling back and forth of the large looms.
Fr. Daens falls back upon his skills of working in the family printing shop as he sets type for his brother’s paper. Then, after coming across some workers and the local priest gathered around the body of a little girl who froze to death in the streets, Daens finds his true calling. He places a brief article of protest on the front page of his brother’s newspaper, and the battle begins. Despite his arguments in which he martials fact after fact about the plight of the poor, neither his church superiors nor political opponents relent. He and his flock rejoice at first when Parliament agrees to send a Committee of Investigation to Aalst, but it turns out that none of the members speak Flemish, so the factory workers must rely on their foreman to translate. Thus none of the workers’ grievances are conveyed. There is a great moment of suspense when Nette tries to direct the visitor requiring a bathroom to the small room where all the child workers have been locked out of sight, but the foreman spots her and intervenes. The Committee leaves the factory, hearing only management’s side of the story.
The arrogance of Charles Woeste when he uses his influence to have Daens silenced by the Vatican is almost too much to bear. Only the gross refusal of the local priest to have any trace of sympathy for the poor of his parish is more disgusting. Of these two the Psalmist might have been writing: “For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.” (Psalm 5:9) Fr. Daens, having won a seat in Parliament, for a time obeys his superiors when he returns chastened from Rome, but matters become so bad in Aalst, with the paid goons known as the Bucks smashing his brother’s print shop, that not even his retreating to an abbey can restrain his conscience from speaking out again.
There is far too much in this fine film to be able to comment on many of the powerful scenes. It is a pity that it has not yet come out on DVD, but VHS copes are available by entering the title into Google. (Note; if you enter Daens into Amazon.com’s search engine, you are given a large list with “Dean” in the title, so use Google—I found 11 used and new copies available, ironically enough, on Amazon.com.) This is a film that everyone concerned with social justice issues should see and share with their people.
1) In the light of the teachings of Scriptures, how or why do you think the church as depicted in the film failed to be concerned for the poor? How does the local priest ignore the poverty around him? At what points do you see him, and others, blaming the poor for their plight? Sound familiar?
2) What is it that changes Daens so that he becomes an advocate for the poor? How is this a matter of leaving behind his blindness as he sees the situation in Aalst through the eyes of Christ. How are Woeste and the church heierarchy like the Pharisees against whom Jesus railed in Matthew 15:1-10? How might Christ’s strong denunciations in Matthew 23 apply to many of the people in the film?
3) How do Daen’s enemies portray him? Compare this to the comment by the Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil “When I say, ‘Feed the poor’ they call me a saint. When I ask, ‘Why are they poor?’ they call me a Communist.” Also, if you have seen (and you should if you haven’t!) Entertaining Angels: the Dorothy Day Story, what the wealthy Catholics said of social activist Dorothy Day. How is character assassination a frequent tactic that oppressors use against those who attempt to change things?
4) How is the command that Daens go to Rome a part of the tactics to take away his power? Do you think that the Pope knew of his being kept waiting for such a long time for his supposed audience? If not, what does this show about the power of the bureaucracy that surrounds the pope? Daens bases much of his activity upon Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (1891), but how does the church heirarchy get around this?
5) How did you feel when little Jefke attempted to duplicate Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fishes that he had heard Fr. Daens preach about? What does this show of the children’s desperation? What about the circumstances of the boy’s death? How is the reaction of the local priest one more nail in the coffin of the Belgian church? What did you think of the intercut scenes between the King and his wealthy guests dining on sumptuous food and the poor?
6) After her rape by the foreman did Nette or her mother think of reporting the man to the police? Why? From what we saw of the Gendarmes do you think they would have done anything? On whose side were they? How has this often been the case in the struggle against oppression, such as in the days of the Civil Rights movement?
7) An important theme is the pull in opposite directions that Daens’ feel between his loyalty to the church and his desire to do Christ’s will for justice. How is this shown? Which seems to be winning at first? What similar pulls in opposite directions might you have experienced?
8) How is Fr. Daens’ final decision similar to that faced by Jeremiah between his desire to live as a citizen of Jerusalem and his call to declare God’s truth? (See Jeremiah 5:1-17 and 7:1-21 9) In 1957 the people of Aalst erected a statue with the inscription: “The worker must be neither a slave nor a beggar, he must be a free and prosperous man”. How do you think such a self evident truth could have been once denied? For more light on this, look up the great social justice hymn based on a poem by James Russel Lowell. Unfortunately the compilers of newer hymnals, blinded by a strict adherence to political correctness, have omitted this hymn because of the maleness of its language, so you will have to seek it out in older hymnals. The second stanza is especially applicable here. It is a shame that newer generations of Christians are being denied this hymn, so do copy and use it on occasion—many older church members will recall it.