If there’s one thing we’ve learned about filmmaker Asghar Farhadi it’s that he’s inclined to construct morality tales (A Separation), his films often border on extreme melodrama (The Salesman) and he’s fixated with shooting in any sort of confined apartment, home or dwelling (The Past). It’s no surprise then that those elements are all part of his latest work, Everybody Knows, which opened the 71st Festival de Cannes. This time, however, the Iranian filmmaker has ventured out of a Persian context and set his tale in a small village in the countryside of Spain recruiting the Oscar-winning couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem to headline it. And, be warned, that sounds more intriguing that it turns out to be.
The film begins with Laura (Cruz) returning to Spain with her 16-year-old daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and significantly younger son Diego (Iván Chavero) in tow. Laura lives in Argentina with her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin), but has ventured home after three years with just her kids for the wedding of her younger sister Ana (Inma Cuesta). There is extreme joy at first at Laura’s arrival and the upcoming nuptials. Everyone is thrilled to see her including older brother Fernando (Eduard Fernández), who runs the small hotel they are all convening at, Fernado’s daughter Rocio (Sara Salamo), a soon to be single mother, and Laura’s slowly deteriorating father Antonio (Ramón Barea), Also happy she’s back in town is her first love, Paco (Bardem), the owner of a nearby vineyard who has since moved on with his own partner Bea (Bárbara Lennie), but has a dicey relationship with the rest of Laura’s family.
As the wedding moves to the hotel reception the party really gets going and there is arguably more joy and fun in these scenes than any of the director’s previous movies combined. It’s all a charade, however, for the pseudo-mystery Farhadi is brewing is just about to begin. After having a fun time at the reception with the resident town teen heartthrob, Felipe (Sergio Castellanos), none other than Paco’s nephew mind you, Irene feels weak and Laura immediately puts her bed. Within a few hours, however, Laura discovers her daughter has disappeared. In her place are nothing but a pile of cut out newspaper clippings telling the tale a girl who was kidnapped a few years earlier. Eventually Laura gets a text saying Irene has also been kidnaped and if she goes to the police her daughter will be killed.
Paco immediately becomes the hero as the family puts down the wedding cake and races through the hotel, the nearby streets and country roads looking for Irene. She’s nowhere to be found and soon a ransom for $300,000 Euros is on the books. Unbeknownst to even her own family, Irene and her husband are financially broke with Alejandro having been unable to find any work for two years. Moreover, Fernando has revealed the hotel is not the success he and his wife Mariana (Elvia Minguez) thought it would be and Laura’s once wealthy father is still bitter about losing a now valuable plot of land 30 years prior (supposedly in a poker game). Things are looking dire and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that wherever she may be Irene struggles from asthma and is without her inhalers.
What ensues from that point is, frankly, a narrative mess. Farhadi introduces one red herring after another to make the audience question who or whom man have kidnapped Irene. Unfortunately, they all seem so implausible you never take them seriously and when the true culprit is revealed it’s simply a letdown despite the family drama that has surrounded the episode. It’s in this context, however, where Farhadi wants to make points on stereotypical prejudice against immigrant farm workers, capitalistic greed, the ridiculing of faith and there’s even some shady judgement over a potential abortion. Once the film comes to an end though it’s clear they were all just distractions that dragged the film to a running time 20 minutes longer than it needed to be.
Farhadi also gets mixed results from a cast you, frankly, expect more from. Once the mission to save Irene begins Bardem slowly falls into his character, but before that begins he has issues playing the upbeat scenes without it seemingly awkwardly forced. Cruz’s performance, on the other hand, is up and down throughout the entire picture and it doesn’t seem like it’s her fault. Farhadi simply can’t direct Cruz to an emotional level that makes Irene’s responses seem real and not melodramatic. Even the legendary Darin seems lost with his character at times when he drops in the second half of the proceedings. The true surprise is the little-known Lennie who gives the most genuine and realistic performance of the bunch.
Surprisingly, what Farhadi does finally get right is coming as close to constructing a true cinematic vision than he ever has before. It’s peculiar to say that about a director who has won two Academy Awards in the Foreign Language Film category, but visual aesthetics have never been his strong suit. Working with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (Volver, Bad Education) for the first time, the pair craft some memorable sequences and artful compositions you simply wouldn’t imagine in a Fahardi film. Don’t worry though, there still an abundance of scenes set in rooms smaller than they need to be in a futile attempt to ratchet up any sort of true dramatic tension because when it all comes down to it we all know Fahardi is still gonna Farhardi, right?