Those who scoffed at first-time thesp Severine Caneele sharing the 1999 best actress nod at Cannes for “Humanity” will eat their words during “A Piece of Sky.” In her second screen perf, Caneele is a force to be reckoned with as a factory worker who finds herself in prison following an unspecified transgression. Writer-director Benedicte Lienard’s sober, subtle and cumulatively powerful tale tackles a lot of big issues in small increments, making the socially committed pic an excellent bet for fests and venturesome distribs.
Film’s downtrodden characters are introduced gradually, their relationships to each other not immediately apparent. Claudine (Sofia Leboutte), a petite, dishwater blonde, works on the assembly line of an industrial bakery. The predominantly female workers are wage slaves whose workplace resembles a prison, right down to regimented breaks.
Meanwhile, in a real prison — where the indignities of strip searches and solitary confinement are conveyed with no-nonsense veracity — prideful Joanna (Caneele) strongly objects that she and her fellow inmates are being exploited as unpaid laborers. Pic remains vague on how she wound up behind bars, although she seems to have crossed some sort of professional line at the bakery where she worked.
It turns out Claudine’s dour demeanor is connected to the fact that, until Joanna blew her stack, the two women were best friends. Living with the knowledge that she disassociated herself from her friend’s actions is eating away at Claudine. Joanna’s lawyer (Olivier Gourmet) thinks he can get his client’s sentence overturned if Claudine will testify on her behalf. But speaking out for Joanna will mean turning her back on the union.
With her broad face and heavy brow, Caneele is a sort of lumbering working-class answer to Simone Signoret. Trained or not, the thesp convinces in both her physicality and her delivery. Mix of actors with genuine workers and prisoners works in film’s favor, and Helene Louvart’s agile camera expertly captures the boredom, frustration and potential for stir-craziness in the sterile atmospheres of the prison and bakery.
Pic is almost too didactic in places, but remains rooted in the reality of working women’s lives. The only exception is the warden (Andre Wilms), whose soul-searching and discomfort over the nature of his profession is too pronounced to ring true.