Little known outside of hardcore cineaste circles, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is one of the finest writers and directors working today. Each of his imports, like About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday, and the Oscar-winning A Separation, bristles with compassion and humanity and a lived-in sense of realism. His films are simple stories on the surface that slowly reveal onion-skin layers of complexity, often hinging on the secrets and lies we keep to ourselves until they can’t be kept any longer. And each of them, if you happen to love movies, is an event.
Stateside at least, Farhadi’s latest, Everybody Knows, is an even bigger event than usual since it’s one of his few films set outside of Iran and features a pair of well-known movie stars in Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. It’s lovely, sun-dappled Spanish setting shouldn’t hurt its appeal either.
Taking place during a holiday weekend in a picturesque village outside of Madrid, where a large Spanish family gathers for a raucous wedding celebration, the film starts off with a wave of relaxed good cheer and free-flowing booze. But soon enough, as the film’s ominous title hints, this party will turn dark — very dark — becoming a nightmarish detective story fueled by long-buried revelations, sucker-punch twists, and past indiscretions that are dredged up. No one will remain innocent.
Cruz is Laura, a woman who left her small Spanish town years earlier to marry a successful Argentinian businessman (the great Ricardo Darin) and now comes back home as a sort of prodigal daughter. She’s returned with her two children for the marriage of her sister Ana (Inma Cuesta) and is both surprised and pleased by how little things have changed, including her former flame, Paco (Bardem), who now runs a vineyard there. With the nuptials approaching and with her two kids in tow (her wild-child teenage daughter Irene and younger son Diego), Laura gets swept up in the humming preparations and getting reacquainted with the swirling, Altman-esque cast of locals and relatives. (The cinematography by Pedro Almodovar regular Jose Luis Alcaine is a feast for the eyes — the cast is equally gorgeous.)
Then, during the reception, Laura’s daughter Irene is kidnapped. The culprits think Laura’s husband will fork over a large ransom. But it’s soon revealed that he’s not quite as wealthy as he presents himself to be. Desperate, Laura turns to Paco to help her raise the money, leaning on their past together to enlist his sympathy in ways that come as a shock. Cruz and Bardem, perhaps tapping into their off-screen relationship, shoot sparks in their scenes together. Their chemistry, even years after their characters’ relationship ended, is palpable and electric, even when it’s shrouded in tragedy. As the clock ticks to save Irene, fingers get pointed and past slights bubble up. The mask of civility drops.
If there’s one nit to pick with Everybody Knows, and it’s a minor one, it’s that Farhadi’s films, as excellent as they are, are starting to feel a bit same-y. He’s plying the same family-in-crisis formula he’s used before. That formula still works like gangbusters, but it’s becoming a formula nonetheless: Happiness and community curdle into paranoia and suspicion. The past keeps popping up to say, “I’m not done with you yet.” And that sting leaves a bruise that cannot and will not be healed, even by the time the end credits arrive. A-