by Kaleem Aftab
- VENICE 2020: Ana Rocha de Sousa's debut film packs a mighty punch as it tackles forced adoptions in Britain
Playing in Orizzonti at the Venice Film Festival, Listen [+see also:
interview: Ana Rocha de Sousa
film profile] is direct-action cinema. Director Ana Rocha de Sousa worked as an actress in her native Portugal but then started to make the leap behind the camera, going to the London Film School in 2010. Her move to the UK has led her to follow in the fabled footsteps of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, making a film about a problem in society that the director feels needs to be challenged and changed. This one is about forced adoptions.
La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz has argued that in the digital age, movies that have a news angle, such as those which made Costa-Gavras famous, are less appreciated and successful because alternative viewpoints to the mainstream media are readily available on the internet. While that may be true, it fails to take into consideration the fact that there are some stories that people are so unaware of that they never get entered into our search boxes. So, sometimes, a movie can still arrive and be a shock to the system: Listen is one such picture.
The title is not just a call for audiences to take heed, although it does work perfectly in that manner. It also reflects the fact that Lu, the middle child of cleaner Bela (Lúcia Moniz) and Jota (Ruben Garcia), requires a hearing aid and talks using sign language. Garcia delivers the stronger performance of the two parents. The family live in a busy house featuring lots of colourful wallpaper and ageing furniture. When Bela shops at the local store, she also puts a couple of extra items that she has not paid for in her bag. The day has already begun badly, with Lu's hearing aid malfunctioning. The daughter is played by deaf actor Maisie Sly, who starred in the Oscar-winning short film The Silent Child, and director Rocha de Sousa takes her viewpoint to mitigate the harsh social realism and show a more poetic vision of the world, with light shimmering through trees and birds tweeting.
But such lyricism doesn't last long. A change of pace and a more closeted shooting style take prominence after the parents approach social services for help. Little do they know they are entering a hell hole that will break their family apart. They get placed on the watch list, and when Lu breaks out in bruises, the social services assume the worst and take the kids away in a harrowing scene that is the film's centre point. There are some fascinating moments as Bela and Jota question each other before they find themselves in a race against time to prove their innocence. Once their children get put into foster care, it's a decision that, under UK law, cannot be reversed. That the parents are from Southern Europe lends the story an extra layer as we enter Brexit Britain.
With the clock ticking, the story is told more bluntly, which is in keeping with the feature being a call to action. The salient points are made thick and fast, and in a serious tone, which is where Rocha de Sousa veers entirely away from Loach, a director who has an outstanding ability to infuse humour into any gritty storyline. It's also unclear how a character trying to help the family fight social services fits into the overall picture.
However, what it occasionally lacks in nuance, it makes up for by delivering a mighty punch to the rigidity of the adoption system. It's particularly strong in condemning how someone's financial ability forms part of the assessment of how well that person can parent.
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