'Listen': Film Review | Venice 2020

Venice Film Festival
Heartfelt but heavy-handed.

An immigrant couple from Portugal fight social services for custody of their kids in Ana Rocha de Sousa's feature debut.

The three children of a poor Portuguese couple (Lucia Moniz and Ruben Garcia) living in London are forcibly removed from their home by social services, raising questions about responsible parenting and duty of care in director Ana Rocha de Sousa's emotive feature debut Listen.

Although the script by Rocha de Sousa, Paula Vaccaro and Aaron Brookner tries to be at least a little bit balanced, the rules-obsessed authorities don’t come out of it well. Largely told through the eyes of the hapless family, especially those of the deaf middle child (a soulful Maisie Sly), this won’t be winning endorsements from social workers’ unions and professionals in the field anytime soon. On the other hand, Rocha de Sousa skillful direction of actors, the woozy cinematography by Hatti Beanland and Tomas Baltazar’s skittish editing add a colorful edginess that will make this Ken Loach-style social-issue drama catnip for festival programmers.

Moniz, arguably best known beyond Portugal for being the object of Colin Firth’s affections in Love, Actually (2003), anchors the film effectively as Bela, the mother at the story’s center. Passionately devoted to her kids if a bit too inclined toward shouting and drama, Bela works as a cleaner to supplement the meager income her husband Jota (Garcia) brings home. Good with the kids, Jota sketches his family constantly on scraps of paper. Apparently, he has some kind of laboring job that we just never see him doing. Instead, he spends a lot of time home with baby Jessy (played by twins Lola and Kiki Weeks) while Bela works.

Judging by the fluently British accent of their oldest child, early adolescent Diego (James Felner), the family has been in the U.K. for some time. They have their deaf daughter Lu (Sly) enrolled at a school where she’s being taught with sign language, which the rest of the family also use to communicate with her. Given that in the opening scene Bela warns Jota to be ready for the visit from the social worker at 4 o’clock that day — and don’t be late because you know what the British are like about punctuality — it’s clear that social services have been monitoring the family for a while. That’s not surprising since Bela has to shoplift a loaf of bread for breakfast while her relationship with Lu’s teacher (Susanna Capellaro) is testy due to her frequent tardiness dropping Lu off or picking her up — as well as the fact that they haven’t organized a new hearing aid for her when the one she has breaks.

When the school notices bruises that Bela and Jota can’t explain, all three children are suddenly taken into care. No parent could watch the scene without feeling a little sick, as several social workers, led by one patient but insistent main officer (Brian Bovell), and assorted police officers enter the house with full authority and take the crying, distraught children away.

It’s a traumatic scene that is persuasively unfurled, suggesting the filmmakers have done research into the procedures for such cases. But thereafter, the drama stacks the sympathies up against the state perhaps a little too much in an effort to keep us on the family’s side. For example, the social workers terminate Bela and Jota’s visitations when they start speaking in Portuguese or use sign to communicate with Lu because there’s no translators for either language present to ensure the parents aren’t plotting to seize the kids. And as it happens, that’s pretty much what they are planning to do, with advice from former social worker turned rogue agent Ann Payne (Sophia Myles).

This may be an entirely accurate reflection of the sort of thing that goes on every day, but as written these last-act plot developments feel somewhat forced to propel the story forward and create tension. More importantly, the clumsy critique of institutional misconduct makes you realize how scrupulously filmmakers like Loach and his usual screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty or the Dardenne brothers labor to get the details right in their films about broken systems like I, Daniel Blake or The Unknown Girl, respectively. Like those filmmakers, director Rocha de Sousa here wants to ensure the audience stays on the side of the protagonists. But if you stack the deck too hard, the whole house of cards risks collapse.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)  
Cast: Lucia Moniz, Ruben Garcia, Sophia Myles, Maisie Sly, James Felner, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Lola Weeks, Kiki Weeks, Brian Bovell.
Production: A Pinball London, Bando aParte production
Director: Ana Rocha de Sousa
Screenwriter: Ana Rocha de Sousa, Paula Vaccaro, Aaron Brookner
Producers: Paula Vaccaro, Rodrigo Areias, Aaron Brookner
Director of photography: Hatti Beanland
Editor: Tomas Baltazar
Production designer: Belle Mundi
Costume designer: Filipa Fabrica, Belle Mundi
Music: Nessi Gomes
Music supervisor: Frederic Schndler
Casting: Heather Basten
Sales: Magnolia Pictures International 

No rating; 74 minutes