Ana Rocha’s Listen (2020) begins quietly, with shots of clotheslines and tree branches swaying in the breeze: a rare moment of solace in an otherwise breathless family drama. Clocking in at under 80 minutes, the writer-director’s feature debut doesn’t waste any time immersing viewers in what must be one of the most gut-wrenching experiences a parent can endure.
Lúcia Moniz plays Bela, a hardworking mother who – when we first see her – is already past her breaking point. Her preteen son, Diego (James Felner), is bedridden with a terrible fever; the paycheck she and her husband Jota (Ruben Garcia) are desperately counting on has yet to arrive in the mail; and their daughter, Lu (Maisie Sly), has a broken hearing aid. “Are you aware of your child’s needs?” an exasperated teacher asks Bela. She and Jota are well aware, though there seems to be little they can do about it.
Complicating matters further is an impending visit from social services that has both parents on edge. Indeed, Listen’s first 30 minutes – which chronicle the morning and afternoon leading up to this meeting – almost have the feel of a thriller, they’re so tense. Consider a scene in which Bela shoplifts bread and cheese, slipping the items into a stroller while Lu (who looks no older than 5 or 6) watches her baby sister Jessy (Lola Weeks) in an alley outside. This opening act culminates with all three children being taken away by social workers and police. The scheduled “visit” turns out to be more of an ambush.
The film’s second half focuses on Bela and Jota’s struggles to retain custody of the children before the latter are permanently relocated. As the couple navigates through the red tape of the British foster care system, Rocha’s social commentary comes to the fore (and the film’s title becomes something of a call to arms). The husband and wife are constantly reminded to speak English (both are from Portugal) during their supervised meetings with the children, and Bela is forbidden from communicating with Lu via sign language (which a supervisor glibly refers to as “sending messages”).
Time passes, options decrease, and the couple must face the unimaginable possibility that they may not get all of their children back. Ann (Sophia Myles), an advocate who takes on their case, doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to their situation: “I need you to be emotionally prepared for this, and I’m sorry to say that Jessy might be taken very soon,” she tells them. “Decisions are being made every day based on guidelines, these vague definitions of the so-called social services protocol.” The parents’ obvious love for their children can only do so much in the face of an unforgiving bureaucracy.
Listen has been compared to Ken Loach’s work; I was also reminded at times of Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Dardennes’ L’Enfant (2005). Like the protagonists of these films, Bela and Jota have their flaws (especially the latter, whose bruised knuckles suggest a dangerous temper) but are ultimately decent people. Moniz in particular steals the show, especially during a climactic court scene in which she pleads their case for the last time. “We want her,” she says about Lu, who has been rejected by multiple foster families because of her disability. “We want her to be safe, and happy, and loved. And none is a better candidate than ourselves.”
While Rocha seems committed to stark realism, her lyrical flourishes offer an occasional respite. Lu, for example, carries a cardboard camera around with her, which allows the writer-director to incorporate POV shots through the toy’s plastic lens. Her symbolism can be a bit on the nose, though, as when the lens cracks after a particularly heated encounter with the authorities.
For the most part, however, Rocha successfully evades the mawkish and observes her troubled characters with both precision and empathy. She understands that family matters are far more complex than good or bad, and that even moments of triumph can be laced with despair.
Listen is in select UK cinemas from June 10th