Dir: Benedicte Lienard. Belgium-France-Luxembourg. 2002. 85mins.

Defiantly out of step with the prevailing mood of the times, Une Part du Ciel makes no bones about its militant political stance nor about its intransigent art-cinema leanings. A story of two estranged female friends - one a factory worker, the other serving time in prison - the debut fiction feature by documentarist Benedicte Lienard argues that women are similarly oppressed in and out of prison, and that only solidarity can win them, as the title suggests, liberation and "a piece of sky". However, a sometimes laboured approach and a severe aesthetic that makes no concessions to viewer pleasure make this supremely uncommercial film one strictly for the more serious-minded end of the festival spectrum.

Lienard's film arose out of her experiences running a prison workshop on expression, resulting in an exhibition called 'Images Free Your Mind' - giving some sense of her agitprop inclinations here. The story parallels the experiences of two equally militant friends. Joanna (Severine Caneele) is in prison following an unspecified crime; we're given to understand that she is there as the result of her hot temper. Her defiant nature comes out when she protests against the prisoners' tedious and, she argues, exploitative manual work; she consequently spends much of her time in solitary. Claudine (Sofia Leboutte), a production line worker in a patisserie factory, is furiously opposed to the management's attempts to bulldoze the workforce into a disadvantageous social security agreement, a deal backed by a lily-livered (and predominantly male-run) union. We soon realise the two women's lives are linked, as Joanna's lawyer (Dardenne brothers' regular Olivier Gourmet) tries to break Claudine's reluctance to testify for Joanna, her former co-worker; it seems that only Claudine's intervention might get her out of prison.

Shot by Helene Louvart, the film is an unrelentingly bleak affair of long takes, silences, cultivated visual drabness, and starkly striking composed shots. Liénard chooses faces for their unvarnished look of reality: together with several real-life prisoners and factory workers, the handful of known names include the peerlessly careworn Andre Wilms, looking sick as a parrot as the prison director. The film is notable for the return of Severine Caneele, the unknown textile worker who unexpectedly won a Best Actress award in Cannes with her part in Bruno Dumont's L'Humanite. This film gives her considerably more acting to do, and she proves a magnetic screen presence, her weather-beaten, brooding looks fully suggesting a woman with a social mission on her hands. The film makes its polemical intentions clear at the end, as Joanna wows the prison talent show by reciting a hymn of female solidarity - the only moment where Lienard really overstates her case.

Lienard's background includes time as an assistant to the Dardenne brothers, and her resume suggests that she might regard herself as an activist as much as an artist. Recent years have seen a small but significant return of low-budget political realism, with films such as Laurent Cantet's Ressources Humaines and the Dardennes' own Rosetta giving shopfloor stories a compelling narrative spin. However, Lienard's hard-line (some might say, old-fashioned) art-cinema approach, is at once considerably more polemical and yields much less pleasurable results. Une Part Du Ciel more than has the courage of its convictions, but will prove a hard grind even to viewers with a taste for austerity.

Prod co: JBA Production, Arte France Cinema
Fr dist:
Ad Vitam
Int'l sales:
Films Distribution
Benedicte Lienard
Helene Louvart
Marie-Helene Dozo
Prod des:
Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux
Main cast:
Severine Caneele, Sophia Leboutte, Josiane Stoleru, Naima Hireche, Annick Keusterman, Yolande Moreau