For his first Spanish language film, famed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi opts for a star-studded affair, casting international titans such as Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Ricardo Darín. Serving as the opening film in last year´s Cannes Film Festival, it´s undeniably a huge event in the film world, based on the names involved alone. But in spite of its “art cinema blockbuster” status, Everybody Knows is far from extravagant, focusing on an intimate, personal family-thriller where the power of the unsaid matters as much, if not more, than the big revelatory moments and showy outbursts.
The film takes place in a rural village in Spain, where Laura (Cruz) and her children return to their roots for a family wedding. However, the event quickly turns into irreparable tragedy when Laura´s daughter Irene is kidnapped, spearheading the film into nothing short of a high melodrama, filled with twists and revelations that wouldn´t be out of place in a telenovela.
The set-up to this catalytical moment takes its time, but it´s arguably the most accomplished part of the film. Scenes where Laura and the children reencounter family members and other old faces, namely Paco (Javier Bardem), a family friend who may have had a romantic past with Laura, go on for longer than we may expect, before the plot properly kicks in. With a focus on peripheral details with symbolic significance to the character´s pasts, this introduction effectively maps out certain dynamics, cleverly foreshadowing future conflicts and creating a real sense of shared space. When we get to the wedding scenes though, there is a crescent, palpable paranoia, and danger amidst the homely rowdiness and jubilance, right before the girl disappears, where the use of drone shots prove to be a masterstroke for Farhadi – an impersonal, robotic gaze navigating and pre-exposing a façade of traditional iconography and fragile familial bonds, which hide a lifetime of secrets and lies.
After the initial shock and desperation brought on by the girl´s disappearance, the film loses momentum, devolving into a long-winded investigation for the rest of its lengthy runtime. But it´s Farhadi´s tight control over film´s atmosphere that keeps it from buckling under its own complex screenplay and turning out an overly dramatic slog, as the characters ´motivations get put in question, keeping us endlessly guessing.
Anchored by the dry, uncertain airs evoked by the cinematographer José Luis Alcaine´s sun-soaked rural landscapes, Farhadi is able to use this remote, enclosed space, a village where everyone knows each other, to full dramatic effect. With whispers and murmurs informing and enriching the ever-complicating plot, the real enemy is revealed to be the weight of characters´ roots that end up resurfacing with unexpected, tragic casualties. What they have buried within never truly withers as it´s carried out and immortalized by the collective consciousness of a small community, through rumors and unhealed wounds.
The actors are mostly capable of carrying the hefty dramatic work along the way, with Bardem, who plays Paco with a conflicted, melancholic hubris, and Darín, playing Laura´s strangely distant husband, being the MVPs, while Penélope Cruz is solid but slightly one-note in her portrayal of a desperate mother. But the stand-out in Everybody Knows is writer-director Farhadi, who carrying two Foreign Language Film Oscars already, is well on his way to becoming one of the consistently stand-out directors of the decade, bringing his flair of social realism to an increasingly international audience. Everybody Knows may not be the monumental gut-punch it sets out to be, but it´s far from a misstep in the director´s impressive catalog.
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