Father Daens, a belgian priest, is sent to the mill town of Aalst, where brutal mill owners oppress and bully their employees. When he begins to champion workers' rights and stands for public office, he is cesured by his church and forced to choose between looking after workers and his work as a priest.
Just as we got used to the idea of Belgium producing quirky little movies like Toto The Hero and Man Bites Dog, here comes a big-scale, simple but powerful left-wing historical drama. Interweaving the stories of a larger-than-life social crusader with those of the poor he tries to help and the stuffy bosses who get in his way, this bears comparison with Malcolm X and Hoffa.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, a wishy-washy Pope issued an edict which said being horrid to starving peasants was bad news, and the Church was horrified when one Belgian priest, Adolf Daens, went out and acted as if His Holiness meant that the Church was to be sympathetic to the workers. Daens (Decleir) gives sermons and writes articles about the hideous abuses taking place in the textile factories in his hometown, Aalst.
Learning that all adult men have been fired from their jobs so the owners can pay less to women and children, and that gruesome industrial accidents and retributive violence against anyone who complains are common, he goes against the wishes of his Bishop and stands for election as a Christian Democrat, which pits him against the creepily bewhiskered Woeste (Desarthe), chairman of the extremely conservative Catholic Party. Censured by the Pope, conspired against by crooked politicos, and bullied by right-wing vigilantes, Daens is finally forced to leave the priesthood.
Decleir is wonderful in expressing quiet rage and charisma, but his unshakeable faith is played down to such an extent the crisis of conscience that comes with his realisation that the Church is just as corrupt as politics is rather thrown away.
It's stirring stuff, but feels like a socialist cowboy movie, with black-hatted mill-owners gobbling pastries and being fiendish while noble peasants suffer cheerfully through the dirt for well over two hours.