THE OPENING of Daens (15) plays like Ibsen - a Low Countries Ibsen, and a rather low- energy one too. This true story, nominated for an Oscar in 1993, starts in black and white, before bleeding into still grimier colour. The scene is a factory floor in Aalst, in the Belgian provinces, at the turn of the century - when industrial machinery was in revolution, but working conditions stood still. Children chase a clattering loom, picking up fluff left in its wake, before scrambling backwards on their knees as the machine, like a grim reaper, remorselessly returns. A cruel overseer fondles the women. The place is an accident waiting to happen. When a small boy is squashed - in a scene shot with affecting casualness - it's clearly not the first fatality. Father Adolf Daens (Jan Decleir) exposes the outrages in the local paper. And we prepare ourselves for a dramatic tussle between principle and profit.
We get it in part, as the priest draws conservative wrath in the church and parliament ('Please, Lord, free us from Daens,' says one cleric of his turbulent colleague). What's missing is drama. It's replaced by policy-review meetings, as Daens divides the Catholic political hierarchy. Characters split between pampered clergy and romanticised masses reminiscent of 'The People' in John Ford's Grapes of Wrath. Jan Decleir, a halo of hair flowing from his Father Brown hat, has a weighty presence as Daens, but we get no insight into his character - the workings of his conscience or springs of his compassion.
The film's main distinction lies in its design, by Allan Starski, who won an Oscar on Monday for Schindler's List. He brings to life two worlds: the gilded luxury of the political and religious establishment (including a scene set in Rome, when Daens gets an ambivalent response from Pope Leo XIII's representatives) and the poverty of the populace. The factory is a seedier version of Schindler's, with the same glass screen separating the manager's office from the workforce. Director Stijn Coninx is at his best pointing up privation, as when shooting a cramped home through a wall of bodies, so we can barely see the furnishings.
It makes a change from Hollywood, which has little time for poverty, and when it does often falls for skid-row poetry. But it wouldn't have been cheap glamorising to have included some action. Or even some rhetoric: we often hear Daens declaiming his case, but he's uninspiringly plain-spoken. After the dangerous wit of Man Bites Dog, Daens restores our prejudices about Belgian cinema: it's long, worthy, and a bit dull.
A little of Whoopi Goldberg goes a long way - for me, right to the pit of the stomach. After her hosting of the Academy Awards (not too bad), we have Sister Act 2 (PG) - absolutely dreadful. In the original, Whoopi played a woman who masqueraded as a nun to escape her husband. It was a one- joke film, but that's one joke more than Sister Act 2 has. For some, not-very-well-explained reason she's coaxed back into the habit to teach a class of delinquents. Cue one of those cloying comedies which miss the point by turning chaos into harmony. Whoopi decides to turn her charges into a crack gospel choir, and we head for a predictably triumphant prize performance. Stirring standards such as 'In the Still of the Night' may raise you out of your seat - if you haven't already left it.
Beethoven's 2nd (U), slightly better crafted than its predecessor, is a further soggy symphony to the lovable (?) St Bernard. This time he has a mate, Missy (there are winsome, anthropomorphic scenes showing them petting), and, soon, some puppies: 'Puppies] My God, they're all so cute,' scream the Newton children, who take them in. A plot of sorts develops when the pups are kidnapped by Missy's owners, Debi Mazar and Chris Penn, who's in his Short Cuts role of the downtrodden boyfriend. For a merciful half-hour we're spared the first Beethoven's obsession with canine defecation. Then it returns with a vengeance, including an encore for the urine-filled briefcase gag. The good news is that, as with Sister Act 2, American box- office returns have been well down on the original's. A case of once bitten, twice shy.
The week's best film is The Aristocats (U), made by Disney in 1970. The carefully painted Paris setting has the watery air of Ardizzone, while light and colour are used beautifully throughout. The faces are subtly characterised: compare the fluttering oval eyes of soignee puss Duchess with the piggy dots of her alley-cat suitor, O'Malley. The musical sequences - a cat diving round a keyboard to play an arpeggio; a piano bouncing to the beat as it falls through several floors - might have stretched even Oscar champion Nick Park's ingenuity.
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