Venice Film Festival 2020. Review of “Listen” by Ana Rocha de Sousa

The scariest thought for a parent is to have their children taken away from them. This frightful rumination is exactly what innovative emerging Portuguese filmmaker Ana Rocha de Sousa explores in her outstanding feature debut, Listen, that premiered in the Orizzonti section of this year’s ever-so pioneering Venice Film Festival.

Listen is the story of Portuguese couple and parents of three, Bela and Jota, who live on the outskirts of London and struggle to make ends meet. When they reached to Social Services for help, they couldn’t have imagined they would be regarded as a risk to their children, following a misunderstanding at the school of their deaf daughter. Consequently, what they expected to be a routine visit is actually the execution of an emergency order that take the children from their care. It is a story of the unwavering battle these immigrant parents – deemed inapt through an unpropitious mix of adversity, destitution, ill-fortune and bad judgement calls – fight against the law in a desperate attempt to regain custody of their own children and keep their family together.

Urgent and astutely co-written by the director herself with producers Paula Vaccaro and Aaron Brookner of Pinball London, Listen is a hard and heartbreaking watch for everyone, especially parents. Elegantly told in its majority through the eyes of the unfortunate family – especially those of Lu, the deaf daughter – the film is observational, poignant and simple in its aesthetic and bold in its message.

Listen not only skillfully depicts the struggle of the working class – particularly those failed by the institutions that should be helping them – but also delicately tackles the shapes and shades of the different sides of a story, like a waltz between what is right and what is wrong. Rocha de Sousa shrewdly shows us that nothing is what is seems even though life and culture have shaped us to behave and be categorized a certain way. Listen invites us to listen, to open our minds and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes without judging. In her commentary on institutional misconduct, the director never judges; she merely always shows. She shows through the highly suggestive title the many layers of what listening means, all of which are intertwined and analyzed in the film as different subjects, coming together as one: forced adoption, corruption, lack of empathy, understanding, patience, hope, the consequences of the (mis)interpretation of a situation, the best ways to protect children…

Rocha de Sousa bravely conveys that absolute manners of assessing generally leave space for error and misunderstandings. In that regard, this film is an uncomfortable journey in how we see, what we judge or believe and what is actually real. Listen questions separation as the preventive measure that is presented in and to society and asks: aren’t union, assistance and empathy usually better poised to achieve the best results? Portraying them as authorities fixated on rules, Rocha de Sousa examines the inapt and merciless facet of Social Services, especially when they rely on bylaws outlining what makes a good parent that are tied into the financial situation of the parents. There is indeed a level of poverty where such action is required, but here forced separation should have been the last resort and when Social Services are completely and utterly certain that children are at risk. What happens here does seem like utter lunacy, but it is very much a horrifying reality – one that nobody talks about. While suffering when watching Listen, we can’t help but acknowledge that the system most times makes wrong and rash decisions and ask ourselves: Why does it keep existing the way it does now? Moreover, Lu is saved by her deafness, an impairment that is another social difference, one that highlights even more the aforementioned cruelty and misconduct, but that at the same time allows her to be the one who actually “listens” the most and pays the most attention to everything that is happening to her.

What also sets Listen apart in its brave vision and depiction of the sensitive and controversial subject of forced adoption is that not only is it told by an immigrant and from the point of view of immigrants with a child with disability, but also by a woman. These are all surprising elements in an oft-encountered story, but rarely seen in the rich tradition of social dramas set in the UK, à la Ken Loach. The first UK-Portuguese co-production and one that has achieved gender parity both in front of and behind the camera, having predominantly female heads of department, Listen also highlights the diversity in the UK’s capital and presents a new way of looking at the aforementioned subject by focusing on the universal theme of family. Even though life hits them hard, Bela and Jota’s love for their children is unmistakable.

We are not given any context about the precarious situation Bela and Jota find themselves in and no details about the characters are put forward; we are merely allowed a glimpse into their everyday lives. We are thrown into the story, but we are immediately hooked. We feel everything they feel. We suffer with them. We root for them as if we knew them personally. And therein lies the magic of this stirring film. We will never be the same again.

With Rocha de Sousa’s highly accomplished direction of her actors – in major part thanks to her previous training as an actor – Portuguese actress Lúcia Moniz anchors the film powerfully and delivers a phenomenal and nuanced performance as Bela, the strong and lioness-like mother who will do anything to get her children back, the formidable mother who holds everything and everyone together. Her pain and despair are palpable in every single scene, and she fantastically conveys the unimaginable agony of having your children forcibly taken away. Ruben Garcia is excellent as the passive, silent and repressed father. The two of them nimbly succeed in portraying these two very different parents and the somewhat strange family dynamics in this particular household, but who in spite of everything show a united front in their fight against the system. Deaf child actor Maisie Sly and British actress Sophia Myles also give superb turns as Lu and former Social Services worker Ann Payne respectively. Hatti Beanland’s dazed cinematography is emphasized by Tomás Baltazar’s unsettled and evocative editing, giving the film an artful edginess.

A story of a fight for justice, understanding, misunderstanding and cultural and language differences, Listen is a film from a courageous filmmaker that won’t leave anybody the same. And it shouldn’t.






Production: Pinball London, Bando á Parte (UK-Portugal 2020). Producers: Paula A. Vaccaro, Aaron Brookner, Rodrigo Areias. Director: Ana Rocha de Sousa. Screenplay: Ana Rocha de Sousa, Paula A. Vaccaro, Aaron Brookner. Photography: Hatti Beanland. Music: Nessi Gomes. Production Design: Belle Mundi. Costume design: Belle Mundi. Editing: Tomás Baltazar.


Cast: Lúcia Moniz (Bela), Ruben Garcia (Jota), Sophia Myles (Ann Payne), Maisie Sly (Lu), Kiran Sonia Sawar (Anjali)

Color – 73 min. Premiere: 8-IX-2020 (Venice Film Festival)



Still credits: Pinball London.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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