FILM / A blizzard from Oz: Daens (15) Dir: S Coninx (Bel), Australian Festival Barbican London, Aristocats (U) Dir: W Reitherman (US)

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In an outstandingly lightweight week, the Belgian film Daens at least has the merit of providing some ballast. It's a period piece set in the textile mills of Flanders at the turn of the century and the Daens in question is a craggy-faced priest who becomes involved in the labour movement and quickly faces defrocking.

The battle lines are sharply demarcated between the grey, downtrodden workers and the fat, mutton- chopped capitalists and conniving priests. Moral and political complexity are not on the agenda, and at over two hours Daens (which was mysteriously nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar last year) becomes a bit of a plod. But it does have dramatic force, a passionate central performance and the great virtue of clarity.

The Australian Film Festival (at the Barbican, then touring 13 regional venues) confirms that this national cinema has come a long way from the petticoats-and- landscapes cycle of the Seventies, although one also suspects that - apart from accredited crowd-pleasers like Strictly Ballroom and The Piano - the season has not culled the cream of the crop.

The flagship film, Black River, is an oddity. It is an opera based on a 1987 public inquiry into race relations and black deaths in custody, with a libretto written by Julianne Schultz, a journalist covering the case, and an avant-garde score by her brother, Andrew Schultz.

Five characters converge on an outback town and, when a freak storm floods the area, take refuge in the lock-up. They are: a policeman, a local redneck, a judge and his assistant investigating a death in custody and the mother of the aboriginal boy who has died. As they wait for the waters to subside, the mother tells her tragic story, and bewails her people's oppression, while avenging spirits (incarnated by the Bangarra dance group) haunt the party.

This is mainly interesting as a record of the staged production (it was first performed in 1989 by the Sydney Metropolitan Opera Company), but not entirely successful on screen. The long sequences in the prison cell, shot mainly in close-up, are visually dull and gloomy (the film is blown up from super-16mm, which perhaps accounts for the sombreness). And they are imperfectly integrated with the flashback scenes - the film has woven in a number of new storylines, but without supplying them with extra music, so that the film doesn't quite feel of a piece.

One element in the festival is certainly worth a look, however, and that is the short films. Playing with Say a Little Prayer is Just Desserts, directed by Monica Pellizzari, who made the enchanting Rabbit in the Moon: the new piece is a deliciously scabrous and funny reflection on the relationship between sex and food, Italian- Australian style. And Black River is supported by Palace Cafe and Excursion to the Bridge of Friendship, two lively, witty and entertaining 'musical' shorts that tell their stories without recourse to spoken dialogue. There was brief talk at Disney of disbanding the animation unit after Walt's death in 1966, and Aristocats (1970), generally adjudged not to be among the studio's best products, conveys a distinct sense of cutting corners: nothing ever moves in the film's painted Parisian streets. And the villain (a bumbling butler who catnaps the pets in order to inherit his mistress's fortune) is well below the Cruella de Vil league. Nice incidental characters include a brace of dottily spinsterish English geese, some dopey hill-billy bloodhounds and the scat- cat quintet which plays the film's best song, Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat.

See p27 for details.