‘Listen’ (‘Ismaii’): Film Review | Dubai 2016

LISTEN - still 2 -H 2016
Courtesy of Dubai Film Festival
Serviceable, but lacks urgency.

A romantic sound man patiently sends sound bites to his lost girlfriend in Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi’s ('Under the Bombs') stab at lighter fare.

While other lovelorn souls compose poems, songs or video messages to persuade their absent amours to come back to them, the hero of Listen (Ismaii) is more original: He edits together sound compositions in a last-ditch attempt to reawaken his lost love, a beautiful model who has been cut out of his life after an accident. It’s a nice, audience-friendly idea, spiced up with several eye-opening sex scenes that are surprisingly explicit, even for a Lebanese film. But the story hovers too coyly between romance and melodrama to grab the emotions. Outside of festivals, it will be hard to hear it echoing beyond the region, where its brief nude scenes could be both an attraction and a problem.

The pic marks a turning point in the career of filmmaker Philippe Aractingi, who is best known for his trilogy on the civil war in Lebanon — Bosta (2005), Under the Bombs (2007) and the documentary Heritages (2013). By comparison, the age-old, universal themes of love, loss, passion and infidelity lack the urgency and specificity of his earlier work.

Sound engineer Joud (Hadi Bou Ayash) is a handsome introvert who meets free-wheeling model Rana (Ruba Zarour) on the set. He is quiet and reserved and sensitive as a Labrador; she’s a carefree material girl from a wealthy family. One glance at his beat-up car disqualifies him forever in the eyes of her parents. Yet it’s Rana who, after several dates, takes off her clothes as they explore some ancient ruins and throws herself into his arms in passionate abandon.

Lucky guy — until the next scene, which uncomfortably recalls a public service commercial about the dangers of texting while crossing a busy street. Suffice it to say that Rana suddenly vanishes from his life. With her family closing ranks against him, he has no way to stay in touch with her other than to record the sounds of daily life in Beirut and sneak them to her via her compliant sister, Marwa.

If Rana’s character has all the reality and depth of an air-brushed cover girl, the curvy, earthy Marwa (a warm Yara Bou Nassar) presents a more credible female. She has apparently extricated herself from her parents’ grasp and lives with her British boyfriend pre-matrimony (second sex scene). And she has a serious job as a college lecturer, where she reminds her students, “We’re heirs to an extremely sensual culture, it’s time to admit it.” Her sexual liberalism seems more ideologically channeled than Rana’s, but her teasing eyes keep wandering over to Joud, her sister’s desperately unhappy lover.

In his acting debut, Abou Ayash makes a shyly likable hero who has the youthful seriousness to struggle over a moral dilemma and not just take advantage of opportunity. Though Joud’s earnestness can be exasperating, it's admissable coming from a heart new to love. Like the more sophisticated Zarour, who breezes attractively through her first leading role, he has the good looks and presence for rom-coms to come.

Though the characters come in and out of focus, there is a feeling of tension and suspense that keeps the audience guessing up to a surprise ending that turns the tables on everyone. The film's editors do a trim, on-point job, and sound editor Rana Eid (3000 Nights) spins a convincing web of sound effects around the hero, giving the audience a novel way to interpret his world.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)
Production company: Fantascope Production in association with Elzevir FIlms

Cast: Hadi Abou Ayash, Ruba Zaarour, Yara Bou Nassar, Rafic Ali Ahmad, Joseph Bou Nassar, Lama Lawand
Director: Philippe Aractingi
Screenwriters:  Philippe Aractingi, Mona Krayem
Producer: Philippe Aractingi
Co-producer: Denis Carot
Executive producer: Rim Chehab
Director of photography: Christophe Aoun
Editors: Deena Charara, Marwan Ziadeh, Julien Tavitian
Sound editor: Rana Eid
Music: Sandra Arsianian, Ranine Chaar, Samer Saem Eldahr

Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated, 104 minutes